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Maybe Theism Is OK -- Part 2

-6 Post author: byrnema 11 April 2009 06:32AM

In response to: The uniquely awful example of theism

And Maybe Theism Is OK

Finally, I think I understand where gim and others are coming from when they made statements that I thought represented overly intolerant views of religious belief. I think that a good summary of the source of the initial difference in opinion is that while many people in this group have the purpose to eliminate all sources of irrationality,  I would like to pick and choose which sources of irrationality I have in the optimization of a different problem: general life-hacking.

Probably many people in this group believe that the best life-hack would be to eliminate irrationality. But I'm pretty sure this depends on the person (not everyone is suited for X-rationality), and I'm pretty sure -- though not certain -- that my best life-hack would include some irrationality.

Since my goals are different than that of this forum, many of my views are not relevant here, and there is no need to debate them.

Instead, I would like to present two arguments (1,2) for why it could be rational to hold an irrational belief, and two arguments (3,4) as to why someone could be more accepting of the existence of irrational beliefs (i.e., why not to hate it).

(1) It could be rational to hold an irrational belief if you are aware of your irrational belief and choose to hold it because it is grafted to components of your personality/ psyche that are valuable to you. For example, you may find that

  • eschewing your religious beliefs makes you feel depressed and you are unable to work productively
  • your ability to control unwanted impulses is tied with a moral conscience that is inextricably tied with beliefs about God.
  • ability to perform a certain artistic activity that you enjoy is compartmentalized with spiritual beliefs

I imagine these situations would be the result of an organically developing mind that has made several errors and is possibly unstable. But until we have a full understanding of mental processes/psychology/the physiology of emotions, we cannot expect a rational person to just "tough it out" to optimize rationality while his life falls apart.

Later added: This argument has since been described better, with a better emphasis, with [this comment.](http://lesswrong.com/lw/aq/how_much_thought/6zp)

(2) It could be rational to hold an irrational belief if you choose to hold it because you would like to exercise true control of your mind. Put another way, you may find it to be an aesthetic art of some form to choose a set of beliefs and truly believe them. Why would anyone want to do this? Eliminating all beliefs and becoming rational is a good exercise in controlling your mind. I hazard that a second exercise would be to believe what you consciously choose to.

(3) I think there is another reason to consciously choose to try to believe something that you don't believe rationally-- true understanding of the enemy; the source and the grip of an irrational thought. What irked me most about the negative comments about religious views was the lack of any empathy for those views. It may seem like a contradiction but while I believe some religious views are irrational I do not dismiss people who hold them as hopelessly irrational. With empathy, I believe that it is possible to hold religious views and not greatly compromise rationality.

(4) Maybe you are indeed right that any kind of religious view is irrational and that we would be better off without it. However, it is not at as clear that religious views can ever be completely exorcised... Suppose we wanted to create a world in which important parts of people's personalities are never tied to religious views. Are children allowed to daydream? Is a child allowed to daydream they are omnipotent? Are they allowed to pretend there is a God for a day? How will it affect creativity and motivation and development if there is no empathy for an understanding of God?

Comments (7)

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 11 April 2009 01:01:16PM *  7 points [-]

You are conflating religion in particular and irrationality in general in this post.

Answering your specific arguments:

(1) This is old hat, the resolution is basically that you can't efficiently (or, in many cases, at all) choose which irrational beliefs to hold or abandon and when, because to do so you'd need to hold rational beliefs to begin with.

(2) This depends on feasibility and cost explained in point (1), although this game sounds unappealing to me.

(3) To understand a rock, you don't need to become a rock, in fact doing so would not help, it will just make you permanently stupid and dead.

(4) Rational understanding of the world is not supposed to explain rainbows away, although this is a mistake common enough.

Comment author: dclayh 11 April 2009 03:09:22PM 3 points [-]

I think "Less Permanently-Stupid-And-Dead" would be a great name for this website.

Comment author: saturn 11 April 2009 09:08:15AM 3 points [-]
Comment author: anonym 11 April 2009 04:51:48PM *  2 points [-]

When deciding which criteria to use to determine which irrational beliefs you should keep (or whether any should be kept at all, or how to decide that), you need to start from first principles, and not work backwards from foregone conclusions. In this case, it seems to me that your foregone conclusions were "keeping religion is okay" and "approaches to rationality that allow me to keep religious beliefs are better than those that do not" to some premises that allow for those conclusions.

For example, taking your point (1), if "eschewing your religious beliefs makes you feel depressed and you are unable to work productively" is a valid justification, then "eschewing your Aryan Brotherhood beliefs makes you feel depressed and you are unable to work productively" should be an equally valid justification for some people.

If you really think that the 3 criteria of (1) are valid or can be made valid, try this: replace all references to religion and spiritual and God in the criteria in order to make them generic, and then try to derive some undesirable conclusions from the generic criteria. If you can't, please report back the generic criteria. If you can, then it follows that they're not valid in general, so they're not valid for religion unless you are making an exception for religion (in which case you don't need to waste time trying to justify the conclusion at all, since it's assumed to be true).


I didn't mean to imply that working back from a conclusion is not a perfectly valid proof technique. It's used all the time in math. The problem is that in real-life, due to various cognitive biases, it's easy to use it as a form of rationalization, where instead of creating a chain of statements from the conclusion back to the premises that deductively proves the conclusion, we end up creating a chain of rationalizations, each of which is sort of plausible, without verifying that the statements prove what they're supposed to prove and don't also have undesirable implications. It's far easier to start from the generic, which invokes far fewer biases than starting from the specific.

Comment author: gjm 11 April 2009 10:31:24AM 2 points [-]

where gim and others are coming from when they made statements that I thought represented overly intolerant views of religious belief
...
What irked me most about the negative comments about religious views was the lack of any empathy for those views. [...] I do not dimiss people who hold them as hopelessly irrational.

I find it a bit strange to be used as a canonical example of someone being overly intolerant of religion here on LW, when most of the point of my last post (to which the author linked) was to suggest that the common practice of using theism as an Awful Example might be ill-founded and unwise.

And I find it a bit strange to be used as a canonical example of someone who thinks theists are hopelessly irrational on account of having no empathy for theists, when in the same post I wrote

it doesn't seem to me that I'm that a much better thinker than I was a few years ago when (alas) I was a theist

byrnema, could you please be a bit more careful with your reading? Thanks.

Comment author: byrnema 11 April 2009 12:34:04PM *  0 points [-]

It was a mistake to use you an example, because everyone's position is nuanced.

However, if you are intolerant of religious views, I don't fully see why you object to my writing that I felt your statements were overly intolerant, as I am arguing for a tolerance of religion that is rather extreme on this forum.

Not certain about the rules for editing -- permission to remove your name in my post?

Comment author: gjm 11 April 2009 12:50:49PM 1 point [-]

You don't need anyone's permission to do that. For what it's worth, my (perhaps over-cautious) policy is that barring really exceptional cases my edits never remove anything substantive; that way, there's no risk that the edits will make other people's comments look silly.

You say "if you are intolerant of religious views", as if I'd just said that I am. I don't really know what it means to be tolerant or intolerant of a particular view (I think toleration is something one mostly does to people), but I'd say I'm entirely tolerant of religious views. I just happen to disagree with them.