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HonoreDB comments on Ontologial Reductionism and Invisible Dragons - Less Wrong

-11 Post author: Balofsky 20 March 2012 02:29AM

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Comment author: HonoreDB 20 March 2012 06:52:26AM *  54 points [-]

1) The author makes precisely 3 statements regarding Halacha (Judaic law), each of which is demonstrably incorrect.

Well, no. He makes those statements about the Old Testament, not actual Jewish law. It seems blatantly obvious that the rulings and commentary you cite are indeed "apologetic glosses on a defective primary text." The fact that they were written when scientific knowledge was still rudimentary is immaterial--clearly, they patched the locust thing when they finally got around to counting its legs.

2) The author asserts that the Tanakh (Old Testament) “doesn’t talk about a sense of wonder at the complexity of the universe.”

Again, in trying to refute this you cite texts that were written much later. If the Old Testament actually contained references to a sense of wonder at the complexity of the universe you'd be able to quote it. I think the closest it comes is a sense of despair and humility at the incomprehensibility of the universe.

3) The author asserts that historical Judaism defends the authenticity of the Torah without accounting for Bayes’ Theorem.

I think you've simply misunderstood, here: this is close to the opposite of what the author is saying.

4) The author asserts that contemporary religionists justify false opinions by claiming that their religion is a separate magisterium which can be neither proven nor disproven.

You don't really dispute this, you just sort of argue that it's okay. It's not. If something like "the nature of good and evil" does not describe some aspect of human experience, then it's vacuous. If it does, then it is subject to scientific analysis.

Given all of this, the popular contention that the Torah endorses slave-ownership is difficult to defend.

The Torah condemns nonmarital sex. Repeatedly, explicitly, and harshly. It does not condemn slavery. Nonmarital sex is an inevitable constant across all cultures, times, and places. It is so much more inevitable than slavery. This seems to suggest a somewhat different attitude toward slavery than toward nonmarital sex.

The passages you quote, brutal as they are, concern only Jewish slaves. The Torah explicitly permits Jews to buy non-Jewish slaves and never free them (Leviticus 25:45-46), but pass them and their children on to your children, forever. It instructs the Jewish people to, when conquering a culturally powerful enemy city, kill the men, women, and male children, but allow the soldiers to keep the virginal girls as slaves. Such a genocide is depicted in Numbers 31, for example. How do you think that kind of slavery went? Imagine you're a young Midianite woman. Your father dies defending your city, and then it falls to the invaders a day later. Jewish soldiers come to your house. Your old, weak grandfather grabs a sword and bars the door, but you plead with him to surrender, and the soldiers watch as you tug the sword out of his hands and lead him inside to a chair. One of them laughs, walks inside, and runs him through. Your mother wails and he turns to her, sighs dutifully, squares off, and cuts her head off cleanly in a single stroke. You've barely had time to register what just happened, when he pulls your baby brother out of his crib. Some part of you manages to mobilize yourself and you find yourself charging towards him, screaming. By the time you reach him, he's already bashed your brother's brains out and dropped the body. You get in one wild punch before he backhands you to the ground. He could kill you in an instant but instead he stares at you appraisingly.

Would such a woman ever so much as weave a basket for her captor voluntarily? She'd have to be chained up at night, I bet, or else she'd slit his throat. She'd have to be beaten half to death before she even considered accepting this man as a master--the man who killed her family in front of her. Would the soldier sell her to another Jew? It might not make much of a difference: these would still be the men who destroyed her entire civilization. Would she be sold to outsiders? Sold, as a young, virgin slave, to outsiders who aren't bound by all those ethical Biblical rules? Yeah, that's going to end well for her. What do you suppose she would say, if she saw you praying today? Chanting some of the same prayers, thanking the same God in the same language, as the man who slaughtered her family thanked God for delivering her into his hands. Attending synagogue and saying "amen" as they read aloud the story, recorded for all eternity, of her torment and her people's genocide.

At this point you are already preparing your response, where you explain that the genocide was pragmatically necessary. "They had to kill those people, or the next generation would have killed them. God commanded it because He knew it had to be done. Enslaving the girls was the most merciful practical option." I beg you not to say this. This is the worst modern consequence of the Talmudic tradition: an intellectual, explaining how mass killings and brutal slavery are sometimes justified. Every time you defend genocide, you hasten the day when it will happen again. I ask again: What could you possibly say to any of those sixteen thousand Midianite women and girls, if they asked you why you were commemorating the atrocities committed against them, and adopting the perpetrator's heritage as your own?

The next time you kiss a Torah, I expect you to picture that Midianite slave. She's watching you kiss it. She knows what's written there. She sees you as reaffirming, in that moment, your allegiance to the worst parts of human civilization. What do you need to do to get right with her?

Comment author: Nornagest 21 March 2012 07:23:15AM *  8 points [-]

The next time you kiss a Torah, I expect you to picture that Midianite slave. She's watching you kiss it. She knows what's written there. She sees you as reaffirming, in that moment, your allegiance to the worst parts of human civilization. What do you need to do to get right with her?

Not to play apologist, but as long as I'm going to play apologist I might as well point out that pretty much every well-documented culture I've ever heard of has some comparably horrible things in its backstory. Memorializing them is less common; usually they get swept under the rug, like some of the nastier consequences of the Philippine insurrection (1899 – 1902) in American textbooks or (so I'm told) the Armenian genocide (1915 - 1923) in Turkish ones. But if you take the veneration of the (semi-) historical sections of the Torah as evoking some kind of national sentiment, which from my outside view certainly seems like it's got something to do with what's going on, then you're only a hop or two away from a blanket condemnation of nationalism.

Which I think I'd actually be rather comfortable with -- I'm no great fan of massive involuntary identity groups given what they do to people's sanity -- but it does seem rather broader than what I took you to be going for.

Comment author: gwern 20 March 2012 06:43:12PM 16 points [-]

Would such a woman ever so much as weave a basket for her captor voluntarily?

Stockholm effect. IIRC, in studies of aborigines like the Yanomano, they find that kidnapped women are common in family trees and also that men have very high death rates from homicide, implying both that the women did indeed do more than basket-weaving for their captors and they are nontrivially likely to have a dead relative.

Comment author: pedanterrific 20 March 2012 06:50:45PM 3 points [-]

Would such a woman ever so much as weave a basket for her captor voluntarily?

in studies of aborigines like the Yanomano, they find that kidnapped women are common in family trees [...] implying both that the women did indeed do more than basket-weaving for their captors

How does this address the question?

Comment author: gwern 20 March 2012 06:59:09PM 6 points [-]

Er... because do you think the Yanomano man is standing there, shaking the non-existent shackles, saying 'weave a basket and bear my children!' every minute of the day? Such guard labor would be impossibly expensive.

So the point stands. They can and do.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 20 March 2012 09:25:45PM 19 points [-]

I think this is the single most powerfully written argument against Judaism that I've ever read in my life, and it's four paragraphs long.

HonoreDB, I don't know how long that took you to write, but if you wrote a book of Bible stories from the victims' perspective, I think it might sell.

Comment author: Balofsky 21 March 2012 09:26:13PM 1 point [-]

I'll break this down into two response, because of the length.

-Assuming the locust-thing is an apologetic gloss doesn't seem warranted. Locusts have been a common food source in many parts of Asia and Africa for thousands of years, and the fact that the Torah permits the consumption of certain locusts strongly implies that they were being eaten. It seems fair to estimate that the people eating these locusts would have known how many legs they really had, regardless of illiteracy and poor knowledge of animal biology.

-I'm not claiming that the Tanakh itself contains clear, obvious passages expressing wonder at the universe, in fact I pointed out that the text itself generally doesn't. I'm claiming that the legal tradition that derives from it necessitates the study of nature and makes it inevitable, and that the study of nature became a part of Jewish oral tradition as a consequence. While I used the Kuzari for easy citation, the necessity for scientific study can be seen from the text of the Mishnah. How would the Tannaim have fixed a calendar without studying astronomy, established rules for identifying sick animals without studying animal disease, established rules for eruvin without studying plane geometry, etc? Simply reiterating that the written Tanakh itself doesn't express much wonder for the universe, ignores the fact that both oral tradition and written law had an equal stake in how Judaism began, and in how it developed. It also ignores the fact that Judaism has always been much more concerned with the morality of concrete, physical activity than with scientific speculation, the latter having been appropriately subordinated and sublimated to the cause of the former.

-You're right, I am admitting that certain aspects of Jewish thought occupy distinct magisteria. What I am disputing is that rational, scientific methodology is synonymous with reason itself. Many schools of philosophy utilize methods of logic other than the scientific process. As an example (and I don't mean this to be below the belt), one could claim, as Peter Singer does, that an adult baboon has more utility and moral value than a human infant, since the baboon would have a more developed brain and therefore greater consciousness. By extrapolation, one could similarly claim that a super-intelligent computer would have more utility and moral value than a contemporary adult human, since the former would have a more developed mind and therefore greater consciousness. If ethics are to be understood through the prism of the scientific process as we know it, these ideas could actually be argued for pretty effectively, and I don't think such methods of reasoning are appropriate for the discussion of such issues.

Comment author: HonoreDB 22 March 2012 03:26:14AM 10 points [-]

It seems fair to estimate that the people eating these locusts would have known how many legs they really had

Any large text that makes scientific claims makes errors. A modern science textbook averages about 14 errors. Ancient Greek texts are full of erroneous factual claims that they could have easily checked. Aristotle claimed that men had more teeth than women. Had such a claim been in the Torah, there would be later commentary explaining that in women, certain teeth don't count as teeth.

Comment author: RolfAndreassen 23 March 2012 03:02:08AM 3 points [-]

Being fair to Aristotle, it may be the case that empirically, in Ancient Greece, or in whatever sample he used to check his claim, the women did actually have fewer teeth on average. Worse nutrition, more stress on the body due to pregnancy, whatever. If you check ten women and ten men in a non-modern community you might easily get such a result by sheer chance.

Comment author: Pavitra 24 March 2012 03:51:27PM 0 points [-]

I don't think that Aristotle did check empirically, though.

Comment author: thomblake 16 April 2012 08:58:22PM 1 point [-]

Since a large part of what he did was checking empirically, I don't think your opinion is justified. Really, the most likely explanation is that he checked empirically - the same way he observed that the kidneys filter urine, that some sharks give birth to live young, and numerous other biological discoveries that were obtained in part through first-hand vivisection.

Comment author: pedanterrific 21 March 2012 10:24:20PM 1 point [-]

As an example (and I don't mean this to be below the belt)

Why would this be below the belt? If "greater consciousness" is what you value, it seems self-evidently true.

and I don't think such methods of reasoning are appropriate for the discussion of such issues.

Is there a reason for this other than disapproval of the conclusions?

Comment author: Balofsky 21 March 2012 11:41:32PM 0 points [-]

-I say "below the belt," because I imagine that there are individuals of the Less Wrong community who strongly support SIAI's work and goals concerning AI, but who simultaneously would not consider such AI creations to be of greater moral value than humans, and I didn't want these individuals to think that I was making an assumption about their ethical opinions based on their support of AI research.

-Yes, it is largely because of disapproval of the conclusions, but I disapprove of the conclusions because the conclusions are not rational in the face of other intellectual considerations. The failure to see a qualitative difference between humans, baboons and computers suggests an inability to distinguish between living and non-living entities, and I think that is irrational.

Comment author: pedanterrific 21 March 2012 11:51:28PM 3 points [-]

there are individuals of the Less Wrong community who strongly support SIAI's work and goals concerning AI, but who simultaneously would not consider such AI creations to be of greater moral value than humans

I normally hate to do this, but Nonsentient Optimizers says it better than I could. If you're building an AI as a tool, don't make it a person.

The failure to see a qualitative difference between humans, baboons and computers suggests an inability to distinguish between living and non-living entities, and I think that is irrational.

That's a question of values, though. I don't value magnitude of consciousness; if baboons were uplifted to be more intelligent than humans on average, I would still value humans more.

Comment author: drethelin 22 March 2012 03:41:21AM 0 points [-]

How do you define a living entity?

Comment author: ciphergoth 24 March 2012 11:23:04AM 1 point [-]