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The Meditation on Curiosity

33 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 06 October 2007 12:26AM

"The first virtue is curiosity."
        —The Twelve Virtues of Rationality

As rationalists, we are obligated to criticize ourselves and question our beliefs... are we not?

Consider what happens to you, on a psychological level, if you begin by saying:  "It is my duty to criticize my own beliefs."  Roger Zelazny once distinguished between "wanting to be an author" versus "wanting to write".  Mark Twain said:  "A classic is something that everyone wants to have read and no one one wants to read."  Criticizing yourself from a sense of duty leaves you wanting to have investigated, so that you'll be able to say afterward that your faith is not blind.  This is not the same as wanting to investigate.

This can lead to motivated stopping of your investigation.  You consider an objection, then a counterargument to that objection, then you stop there.  You repeat this with several objections, until you feel that you have done your duty to investigate, and then you stop there. You have achieved your underlying psychological objective: to get rid of the cognitive dissonance that would result from thinking of yourself as a rationalist, and yet knowing that you had not tried to criticize your belief.  You might call it purchase of rationalist satisfaction—trying to create a "warm glow" of discharged duty.

Afterward, your stated probability level will be high enough to justify your keeping the plans and beliefs you started with, but not so high as to evoke incredulity from yourself or other rationalists.

When you're really curious, you'll gravitate to inquiries that seem most promising of producing shifts in belief, or inquiries that are least like the ones you've tried before.  Afterward, your probability distribution likely should not look like it did when you started out—shifts should have occurred, whether up or down; and either direction is equally fine to you, if you're genuinely curious.

Contrast this to the subconscious motive of keeping your inquiry on familiar ground, so that you can get your investigation over with quickly, so that you can have investigated, and restore the familiar balance on which your familiar old plans and beliefs are based.

As for what I think true curiosity should look like, and the power that it holds, I refer you to A Fable of Science and Politics. Each of the characters is intended to illustrate different lessons.  Ferris, the last character, embodies the power of innocent curiosity: which is lightness, and an eager reaching forth for evidence.

Ursula K. LeGuin wrote:  "In innocence there is no strength against evil.  But there is strength in it for good." Innocent curiosity may turn innocently awry; and so the training of a rationalist, and its accompanying sophistication, must be dared as a danger if we want to become stronger.  Nonetheless we can try to keep the lightness and the eager reaching of innocence.

As it is written in the Twelve Virtues:

"If in your heart you believe you already know, or if in your heart you do not wish to know, then your questioning will be purposeless and your skills without direction.  Curiosity seeks to annihilate itself; there is no curiosity that does not want an answer."

There just isn't any good substitute for genuine curiosity.  "A burning itch to know is higher than a solemn vow to pursue truth."  But you can't produce curiosity just by willing it, any more than you can will your foot to feel warm when it feels cold.  Sometimes, all we have is our mere solemn vows.

So what can you do with duty?  For a start, we can try to take an interest in our dutiful investigations—keep a close eye out for sparks of genuine intrigue, or even genuine ignorance and a desire to resolve it.  This goes right along with keeping a special eye out for possibilities that are painful, that you are flinching away from—it's not all negative thinking.

It should also help to meditate on Conservation of Expected Evidence.  For every new point of inquiry, for every piece of unseen evidence that you suddenly look at, the expected posterior probability should equal your prior probability.  In the microprocess of inquiry, your belief should always be evenly poised to shift in either direction.  Not every point may suffice to blow the issue wide open—to shift belief from 70% to 30% probability—but if your current belief is 70%, you should be as ready to drop it to 69% as raising it to 71%.  You should not think that you know which direction it will go in (on average), because by the laws of probability theory, if you know your destination, you are already there.  If you can investigate honestly, so that each new point really does have equal potential to shift belief upward or downward, this may help to keep you interested or even curious about the microprocess of inquiry.

If the argument you are considering is not new, then why is your attention going here?  Is this where you would look if you were genuinely curious?  Are you subconsciously criticizing your belief at its strong points, rather than its weak points?  Are you rehearsing the evidence?

If you can manage not to rehearse already known support, and you can manage to drop down your belief by one tiny bite at a time from the new evidence, you may even be able to relinquish the belief entirely—to realize from which quarter the winds of evidence are blowing against you.

Another restorative for curiosity is what I have taken to calling the Litany of Tarski, which is really a meta-litany that specializes for each instance (this is only appropriate).  For example, if I am tensely wondering whether a locked box contains a diamond, then, rather than thinking about all the wonderful consequences if the box does contain a diamond, I can repeat the Litany of Tarski:

If the box contains a diamond,
I desire to believe that the box contains a diamond;
If the box does not contain a diamond,
I desire to believe that the box does not contain a diamond;
Let me not become attached to beliefs I may not want.

Then you should meditate upon the possibility that there is no diamond, and the subsequent advantage that will come to you if you believe there is no diamond, and the subsequent disadvantage if you believe there is a diamond.  See also the Litany of Gendlin.

If you can find within yourself the slightest shred of true uncertainty, then guard it like a forester nursing a campfire.  If you can make it blaze up into a flame of curiosity, it will make you light and eager, and give purpose to your questioning and direction to your skills.

 

Part of the Letting Go subsequence of How To Actually Change Your Mind

Next post: "Something to Protect"

Previous post: "You Can Face Reality"

Comments (92)

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Comment author: Robin_Hanson2 06 October 2007 12:36:17AM 7 points [-]

This is especially well written, btw.

Comment author: Selfreferencing 06 October 2007 03:15:46AM -3 points [-]

It just seems so old fashioned to think that it is courageous to be willing to doubt any of your beliefs. Here's a nice reflection on the matter with regard to the epistemic propriety of religious belief:

http://comp.uark.edu/~senor/wrong.html

Comment author: g 06 October 2007 11:37:27AM 1 point [-]

An OB post from November 2006 is a useful counterpoint to van Inwagen's paper, and there's been other discussion of van Inwagen's claims, generally in the context of the Aumann agreement theorem.

I think van Inwagen is wrong; if he really considers that David Lewis's disagreement with his position has enough evidential force that his continued holding of it is ill-supported by the evidence, then he *should* stop holding it.

van Inwagen doesn't really argue against this; he just says that it seems obvious to him that he's entitled to hold whatever opinions he finds himself holding, with whatever confidence he finds himself attaching to them. And in one sense he certainly is entitled to; he is also entitled to believe that the government of the USA has been taken over in secret by alien lizard-creatures. But he isn't entitled to do that and still be thoroughly rational.

Well, van Inwagen does offer one pseudo-argument: he "doesn't want to be forced" to adopt a position of "general philosophical skepticism", which he thinks accepting Clifford's rule of evidence would commit him to. Well, OK, but it seems a bit poor for a philosopher to be so openly embracing wishful thinking. I don't want to be a philosophical skeptic, and neither do other philosophers; therefore philosophical skepticism must be rejected (bah!); therefore Clifford's rule of evidence must be rejected.

Someone with more intellectual self-respect would say not "I must have some mysterious incommunicable philosophical insight unavailable to Lewis" but "I think Lewis is missing these specific points, and here is why he is wrong in what he's said about them".

I have a dark suspicion that deep down, van Inwagen is a general philosophical skeptic (after all, he's said that adopting a policy of basing one's beliefs on the evidence would lead to that position), but he finds it more congenial to go on making confident assertions on the basis of insufficient evidence.

Comment author: g 06 October 2007 11:38:08AM 6 points [-]

Incidentally: whether something "seems old-fashioned" has very little to do with whether it's true.

Comment author: pnrjulius 09 June 2012 12:34:34AM 0 points [-]

The Earth revolves around the Sun? Why, how old-fashioned!

Comment author: Selfreferencing 06 October 2007 10:21:01PM 0 points [-]

G,

Welp, I've only been reading this blog for 2007. Silly me. I just read the post and all the comments. I have to say that Philip Bricker has the upper hand.

Bricker suggested the option that you advocate, by the way. But he dismisses it. Here's why, I think: If you suspend judgment in response to reasonable disagreement, you're going to have to suspend judgment about basically all philosophical theses. By doing so, you're going to run yourself into quite a few problems.

Note: By 'old-fashioned', I meant that the view advocated in the post relies on epistemological ideas that most epistemologists reject. I sure *hope* that has something to do with whether it's true. Although, maybe it doesn't.

Comment author: g 07 October 2007 12:10:49AM 0 points [-]

I've only been reading OB for a month or thereabouts myself, but I had a little trawl through the archives looking for interesting things.

If epistemologists-as-a-class take any particular stand on whether a general willingness to doubt all one's beliefs is courageous, then that's the first I've heard of it. But I'm not an expert on epistemology, still less on epistemologists, so maybe that wouldn't be too surprising. Anyway: What epistemological ideas, generally rejected by epistemologists these days, are being relied on by those who say things like "It is courageous to be prepared to revise any of your ideas, if the balance of evidence turns out to be against them"?

(I expect a lot of epistemologists would insist that you probably have some ideas for which you'll never be able to find yourself in that position, because they're so firmly built into the structure of your brain or of the reasoning processes you're using. But that's quite separate from whether a willingness to doubt anything you *do* get good evidence against is either courageous or wise, and doesn't seem to me to have anything much to do with what Eliezer is saying here.)

Isn't your explanation of why Bricker dismisses "the option [I] advocate" just "If I adopt this policy then I'll have to do a lot of judgement-suspending, and I don't want to"? Or does he (or do you) have some specific problems in mind, that one would run into by doing this? (Being uncertain about some questions one would rather be confident about isn't, in my view, a "problem".)

For the avoidance of doubt: I am not proposing (though I think there are contributors here who would) that when considering any philosophical problem it's illegitimate to have opinions of one's own that differ from the majority view among philosophers. (Or among the very best philosophers, or whatever.) But I do think it's a sign of something probably wrong if you find yourself in disagreement with others who (at least on the face of it) are better placed to understand the matter clearly, and *don't have anything to say in favour of your position other than that it seems right to you*. Because when you do that, you're basically appealing to the quality of your intuition, and ex hypothesi those disagreeing others have intuitions likely to be at least as good as yours.

Comment author: MrHen 29 January 2010 07:24:51PM 3 points [-]

When you're really curious, you'll gravitate to inquiries that seem most promising of producing shifts in belief, or inquiries that are least like the ones you've tried before. Afterward, your probability distribution likely should not look like it did when you started out - shifts should have occurred, whether up or down; and either direction is equally fine to you, if you're genuinely curious.

Strangely, following this behavior leads me to attack my most "rational" beliefs. If I am holding an irrational belief I find it less likely that it will shift. The way I have to dig these out is to keep hacking away at the foundations that built the irrational beliefs. If my inner wannabe rational is using A, B, or C to defend an irrational belief, I need to start firing at A, B, C. This leads me down a path of silly beliefs until I finally find something that is likely to change. I am not arguing that this is good or correct; on the contrary, it is the source of many, many problems with my Map.

Going after the irrational beliefs directly doesn't do anything. They are in their little walled areas and are immune to mere arguments and inquiries. I have to knock down the walls first.

Instead of halting all development until I get the walls down I let my curiosity roam in the free territories, allowing it to grow stronger. It gains ground and traction and I can already see its effect on the walls around my evil, cherished beliefs.

All this being said, I get the feeling that something is Terribly Wrong when I start poking around on the map and asking questions about the territory. These feelings are not being repressed and one day I expect to turn around and wonder how the wall was able to stand so long.

Comment author: JGWeissman 29 January 2010 07:40:09PM 0 points [-]

Is it a fair summary that you have theistic beliefs now, but you expect that in the future you will not have these theistic beliefs, and that your modified beliefs without theism will better correspond with reality?

If so, I would suggest as an exercise, that you consider how you would explain to a theist who expects to maintain his own theistic beliefs, why you expect to lose yours.

Comment author: MrHen 29 January 2010 08:13:21PM 2 points [-]

I don't expect to lose mine. How could I? If I thought I would lose them I would have an area with more promise of shifting beliefs. I can imagine scenarios where I would lose my beliefs but that is completely different than predicting the loss. If I actually thought I would lose by beliefs I would be attacking them voraciously.

[...] and that your modified beliefs without theism will better correspond with reality?

I assume that if I did lose my theism that it would only happen in a circumstance where the new beliefs better corresponded with reality. Essentially:

  • I have not always built beliefs within the confines of the Map/Territory and Beliefs are Predictors of Reality concepts
  • I now build beliefs with those concepts
  • Old beliefs not based on those concepts are still in the network
  • To replace an old belief with a new belief, the new belief must use the new concepts

So, if I replaced Theism with Atheism, Atheism had better match reality or I have not improved my belief making process from years ago when I was putting beliefs all over the place because it seemed like a good idea. Atheism isn't attractive in and of itself. If it were, I would be starting at the bottom line.

What good is it to believe the Truth if you are believing incorrectly?

That being said, even though I don't expect to lose my theism, it sure as hell* better update once Curiosity gets ahold of it. I don't expect my beliefs to stay the same but I am unable to predict where they are going to end up.

* Hehe, that's funny, given the context

Comment author: ciphergoth 29 January 2010 08:27:53PM 1 point [-]

If you don't expect to lose it, why are you so scared of critically examining it?

Comment author: Unknowns 29 January 2010 08:32:41PM 0 points [-]

He may be scared of losing it but not expect that, just as someone can be scared of ghosts without actually expecting to meet one.

Comment author: MrHen 29 January 2010 08:38:06PM 6 points [-]

Good question.

I don't feel as if I am scared of losing it to critical examination. I more feel like critical examination isn't going to do anything useful at this point. But I will have to think more about that and get back to you because I am catching a lot of invalid and doublethinky thoughts running through my head.

If I don't post a response by the end of tomorrow, start pestering me because I apparently decided to avoid the topic. I don't trust my future self enough to follow through on this.

Comment author: Blueberry 29 January 2010 09:09:44PM 6 points [-]

I am catching a lot of invalid and doublethinky thoughts running through my head.

I'd love to know what they are, if you'd be willing to catch them and write them down.

Comment author: MrHen 29 January 2010 11:02:35PM *  24 points [-]

Here's a mind dump. I don't have a lot of time right now, but here goes.

If you don't expect to lose it, why are you so scared of critically examining it?

Err... I'm not scared?
Than examine it.
No. I decided not to do that.
Why?
Hmm... what have I said on that subject...

If I am holding an irrational belief I find it less likely that it will shift.

Going after the irrational beliefs directly doesn't do anything. They are in their little walled areas and are immune to mere arguments and inquiries. I have to knock down the walls first.

Okay, sure that makes sense, but what if the wall is merely a creation of fear?
Okay, do I have any fear of changing away from Theism.
I want to say no...
But I have to say yes because I feel fear.
What is the fear of?
Potentials:
- Fear of losing a belief
- Fear of social implications
- Fear of the unknown
- Fear of judgement/punishment
- Fear of being wrong
- Fear of admitting mistakes

Let's go down the list: Fear of losing a belief.
I don't fear losing a belief.
A belief or any belief?
Mmm... most beliefs? I don't know.
Can I think of a belief I would fear losing?
Can I think of a belief I don't fear losing?
Sure, that's easy.
Than name it.
Uh... I guess I need a list of beliefs...
- My name is my name
- 2 + 2 = 4
- The show tonight will be a success
- I am getting more rational

The first two have no fear.
The third has more emotional attachment, but I don't fear losing that belief. I'd rather the show tonight be a success, but losing that belief doesn't scare me.
The last... well, it's true or not. I would rather lose that belief if it were incorrect so I could change what I needed to become more rational. So no, I don't fear losing it.
Is it more accurate to say that I fear keeping it when I shouldn't?
Yes.
Is this a good fear?
Yes, in as much as fear can ever be good.
Can I think of a more valid fear?
We are getting off subject.
Okay. Do I fear losing Theism?
Which part?
All of it.
Uh... I don't see how that can happen as of yet.
So? It doesn't matter if you can imagine it. Does it scare you?
This wasn't the original question:

If you don't expect to lose it, why are you so scared of critically examining it?

Okay. But this answer matters.
Why?
Because it eliminates a potential cause for being scared of critically examining it.
Okay, what are the other causes?
- Fear of losing Theism
- Time wasted on other things
- Fear of confirming Theism and dealing with the social consequences
- Preemptive rejection of Rationality and/or Reality

Okay. So do I fear losing Theism?
I don't know.
You don't know or you don't want to know?
Well, what would be the point in not wanting to know?
- Meta-belief
- Belief in belief
- Convenient ignorance

(Ooh, Convenient Ignorance may be a good subject for a top-level post...)
Okay... so do I believe in my belief of Theism?
Sure, in the sense that I believe I believe in Theism.
Is that the same thing?
Err... no, I guess not.
So, do I believe in my belief?
What is the definition again?

You can much more easily believe that it is proper, that it is good and virtuous and beneficial, to believe that the Ultimate Cosmic Sky is both perfectly blue and perfectly green. Dennett calls this "belief in belief".

Okay, no, I do believe Theism.
Do you believe in your belief of Theism?
I don't think so, since I don't begrudge others their disbelief.
You match the description: "It is good and virtuous and beneficial to believe God exists."
Only in the sense that if it is true it is good to believe.
So if it wasn't true, you wouldn't want to believe?
Correct.
So go find out if it is true.
Yeah, okay, show me how.
Critically examine it.
I can't.
Why not?
There is a wall. That belief isn't accessible through critical examination.
If it were, would you examine it?
I don't know.
You don't know, or you don't want to know?
What difference does it make if I can't examine it anyway?
Because you may be able to examine it and you are lying to yourself about not being able to.
Oh.

And that's all the time I have. I'll try to add more tomorrow. If there is a better place to do this or people would rather me post a summary I am more than willing to comply.

EDIT: Part 2. (It isn't as interesting.)

Comment author: Alicorn 29 January 2010 11:16:07PM 3 points [-]

I find this really interesting to read and would love to see more, although it's kind of carriage-return intensive and might be better hosted offsite somewhere. I can offer space if you don't have a place to put it.

Comment author: CronoDAS 29 January 2010 11:27:33PM 1 point [-]

Me too.

Comment author: MrHen 30 January 2010 07:04:17AM 0 points [-]

I just posted it. Thanks for the offer, though.

Comment author: Blueberry 29 January 2010 11:31:26PM *  0 points [-]

I'd love to read more, and I'm especially curious what it would mean to you to no longer identify as a theist, and how that would feel. I'm also curious about the last two:

Fear of confirming Theism and dealing with the social consequences

Preemptive rejection of Rationality and/or Reality

Thanks for posting this!

Comment author: MrHen 30 January 2010 07:13:10AM 5 points [-]

I'd love to read more, and I'm especially curious what it would mean to you to no longer identify as a theist, and how that would feel.

It is a complicated feeling. It is hard to adequately explain without delving into detail explanations of (a) my particular beliefs (b) the society of friends and family I inhabit and (c) a heck of a lot of personal history. I am not ready to deal with all of that here. I suspect bits and pieces will leak out.

The one thing I will say now is that it would completely wreck almost every aspect of my life. I have everything invested in this.

I'm also curious about the last two:
Fear of confirming Theism and dealing with the social consequences

Since, at this point, I don't have much to think that critical examination will lead to me dropping Theism, it is still possible that it will strengthen Theism. I don't think it is more likely but I expect it would provoke a stronger reaction than my confession did.

Preemptive rejection of Rationality and/or Reality

If I really were scared enough to dodge critical examination I would be smart enough to drop anything that threatened a critical examination. As in, it wouldn't be given a foothold. I have enough power over my beliefs to choose what I want to believe. Right now, Rationality has my attention. If it scared me enough I would just leave and never return.

This hasn't happened and I do not expect it to happen. But if the situation were that dire, I would want to hold off on the critical examination until it was less scary.

For that to even make sense you have to give me the benefit of the doubt in terms of how I argue with myself. I don't expect it to translate well into other person's belief system. Also, it is very late... so... I don't promise anything and reserve the right to recant tomorrow. :)

Comment author: Blueberry 01 February 2010 07:29:16PM 0 points [-]

The one thing I will say now is that it would completely wreck almost every aspect of my life. I have everything invested in this.

Wow. Then it's not at all surprising you feel this way. You've left out a lot of details of your life, so I can't really comment on specifics (though please feel free to share them if you're ever ready to do so here). But given that, it's going to be almost impossible for you to change that belief.

I'm very confident that a detailed, unbiased examination of your theistic beliefs would reveal that there's no evidence for them and you hold them for social reasons. Do you agree? That being the case, you may not want to try to engage in this kind of examination right now. It sounds like you need time to think about what you really want in your life, and what kind of life you want to lead, independent of your beliefs about theism. Do you want to uproot your life right now?

Comment author: ciphergoth 01 February 2010 10:38:05PM *  7 points [-]

In that case, you probably shouldn't think about whether or not there is a God just now.

Rather, you should first think about what you're going to do if you conclude there isn't. In your case, the line of retreat is rather more literal for you than it is for other people. Who would you bring in on your thinking before it had reached a conclusion, to let them know you're really wondering? What would you do to make the best of the situation, given how much you have invested? You'll find it very hard to think about this rationally until you can really face the thought of it going either way.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 02 February 2010 01:40:03AM *  12 points [-]

I should also mention that, judging from the stories I've heard, it's a lot easier to talk about your doubts with your spouse when they're doubts. I presume you have a wife and kids and parents and siblings and local community who are all deeply religious? I don't know about the others, but the sooner you start talking to your wife about your doubts, the more likely you are to stay together as you go down whatever path you go down.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 29 January 2010 11:32:06PM 5 points [-]

I value this data. Keep commenting.

Comment author: MrHen 30 January 2010 07:13:56AM 2 points [-]

I am glad. What do you find most valuable about it? Is there a way I could make it more valuable?

Comment author: CronoDAS 29 January 2010 11:44:16PM 1 point [-]

"Theism" is something of a catch-all term that can include lots of different things. I think that it is indeed possible that our universe has a Creator, but I'll bet my immortal soul that the God of Abraham isn't it. ;)

Maybe you could simply pin down your beliefs instead of "critically examining" them?

Comment author: Alicorn 29 January 2010 11:48:20PM 3 points [-]

It's poor form to bet things you can't pony up if you lose!

Comment author: Kevin 30 January 2010 03:43:01AM *  0 points [-]

And beneath the powers of the creator of a universe, a Type 2+ civilization should be able to seed new planets with life, which is one of the more important powers of the monotheistic God.

Comment author: MrHen 30 January 2010 07:17:39AM 0 points [-]

Maybe you could simply pin down your beliefs instead of "critically examining" them?

For me, "pinning down" means fine tuning definitions. This and "critically examining" use the same toolset. I essentially see them as one and the same. If I am mucking around and bothering with those pesky definitions I am going to see the inconsistencies.

I can describe how I act and that is how I generally translate my old belief system. Rationality encourages beliefs as predictors and I am taking new forming beliefs and entering them that way. The data hasn't come back from those beliefs yet but I am eagerly awaiting.

Comment author: byrnema 30 January 2010 04:16:18AM *  3 points [-]

All that sounds like natural rambling free-association to me, and more like fear of double-think than any actual double-think.

Are you reluctant to "critically examine" your beliefs because it just sounds like a lot of work? (Counselors will say, 'let's work on this' and then an hour later when you feel like an exposed mess of emoted goo and they'll say, 'OK, see you next week.')

Given that you're comfortable with your beliefs, perhaps you're reluctant to expose your beliefs because it'll be like throwing them to the wolves. If not indiscriminate slaughter (no offense to the more militant atheists here), it'll still be something like 12 to 1.

Well, if you ever decide to do this, if it helps, I offer to help you defend your views to the extent that I can competently do so.

Comment author: MrHen 30 January 2010 07:24:55AM 2 points [-]

All that sounds like natural rambling free-association to me, and more like fear of double-think than any actual double-think.

For me, free association clears up doublethink. If I write my thought into a sentence, the sentence has a strict meaning in the English language. I can write the other side of doublethink as a second sentence and let them duke it out over a conversation with myself.

Also, by the time I had responded with the rambling I had mostly sorted out the initial emotional response. I was very surprised that I had one. (It wasn't big; but any at all is a BIG RED FLAG.)

Are you reluctant to "critically examine" your beliefs because it just sounds like a lot of work? (Counselors will say, 'let's work on this' and then an hour later when you feel like an exposed mess of emoted goo and they'll say, 'OK, see you next week.')

No. At least, not how I think of "a lot of work." I certainly avoid some topics because they are a lot of work but this isn't one of them.

Given that you're comfortable with your beliefs, perhaps you're reluctant to expose your beliefs because it'll be like throwing them to the wolves. If not indiscriminate slaughter (no offense to the more militant atheists here), it'll still be something like 12 to 1.

Nah. I am reluctant to expose my beliefs because that is a lot of work. I am too verbose for my own good and have a hard time not responding to every single comment or question.

Well, if you ever decide to do this, if it helps, I offer to help you defend your views to the extent that I can competently do so.

Hmm... how is this different than the clever arguer in The Bottom Line? Honestly, I won't need help defending my views. If I cannot defend them, why should you? The goal in talking about my beliefs wouldn't be defense and offense oriented (at least, not for me). Seeking the truth is not (or shouldn't be) a war.

Comment author: byrnema 30 January 2010 01:32:25PM *  1 point [-]

OK, you don't sound afraid or like you'll want help.

You seem more self-possessed than I am. (This could be related to gender.) When I was arguing for theism, I felt like the inferential distance was great and that there were too many angles to parry at once. I would have been grateful for an interpreter/mediator.

I was most uncomfortable when people speculated about my motives, often with motives I couldn't relate to. I felt more flubbed by identity issues than atheist arguments (which I find I like well enough when they're relevant).

Seeking the truth is not (or shouldn't be) a war.

I think there is one, out there. A war of world views. LW is a sandbox where we can see how different angles and themes will play out once physical materialism becomes more mainstream.

Hmm... how is this different than the clever arguer in The Bottom Line?

My impression of the origin of due process is that the designers of the legal system were well aware of "the clever arguer" and thought the only remedy was to even the playing field.

Comment author: MrHen 30 January 2010 07:02:30AM 4 points [-]

Okay, I finished it tonight. I should warn you that the rest of this is significantly less entertaining. It is longer and less focused/more rambling. Since I read all of your replies it was hard to keep you guys out of my head... there is one part I self-censor and a few places I drift off track. There were a few interruptions as well. They are easily marked. As it is with interruptions, things don't pick up exactly where they left off. (At least one had extremely unfortunate timing.)

If there was a spoiler tag so I could auto-collapse this that would be great. If not, such a feature would be nifty. (Or possibly auto-collapsing comments after a certain length.)

Hopefully someone gets some use out of this. There is a single paragraph summary near the end if all you care about is the result.

It may take a few edits to find all the formatting typos. If you notice one let me know.


There is a wall. That belief isn't accessible through critical examination.
If it were, would you examine it?
I don't know.
You don't know, or you don't want to know?
What difference does it make if I can't examine it anyway?
Because you may be able to examine it and you are lying to yourself about not being able to.
Oh.

So... am I able to examine the wall around Theism?
Let's start with Theism. Ignore the wall.
Okay, but first we need to decide how much of this is public.
Hmm... okay. What wouldn't be?
Event X.
Okay... anything else?
Specific beliefs, I suppose.
Okay, start with Theism. What in Theism is private?
Should we even bother keeping this private?
Honestly, this is a waste of time. Why is Theism inaccessible?
Because of event X.
And that's it? Is that the only thing?
Well, yeah.
So imagine event X disappearing. It is gone; event X never happened.
Okay...
Are you scared?
No.
Why not?
Well, event X is why my emotions are even here... without X, why would I fear anything?
Okay. Imagine event X and still believing in Theism. Is it possible?
Huh. Okay, that will take awhile.
No rush.
...
No. It doesn't make sense.
Why not?
Undoing event X precludes abandoning Theism.
No it doesn't; it is just the most likely result of Theism if you undo event X.
Well, okay, sure, but if I undo X and keep Theism...
It would suck.
It would suck.
So... what does that say about Theism?
Nothing. It says something about X.
Bah, we are way off topic.
And we did this once.
Okay, starting again, why is Theism inaccessible?
Man, this sucks. I don't see how we can do this without talking about X.
X doesn't matter.
Yes it does. And no one is going to want to read this.
So? This isn't for them. It's for you and they asked for it.
They didn't ask for this-
Anyway, this is irrelevant. Stay on topic.
The topic is X!
No it isn't. The topic is Theism.
...
I don't even know how to explain X-
Theism!
Grr...
If you tried, right now, to critically examine Theism without undoing X, what would happen?
[interruption from wife]


We still aren't getting anywhere. If you tried, right now, to critically examine Theism without undoing X, what would happen?
*sigh*
Okay, are all areas of Theism inaccessible?
No.
Name an area that is accessible.
The omni- attributes.
So critically examine those.
Here?
Well, no. But does it make you scared?
No.
Have you critically examined them?
Yeah. But not a whole lot.
Why not?
Because they don't matter that much.
Matter... how?
My behaviors won't change.
Why not?
Because I don't treat God as if he has any of those attributes.
Why not?
Because they failed the critical examination.
Okay... so how much have you examined?
Enough to know I cannot proceed unless I deal with X.
Argh!
Look, it's not my fault. You know why.
Yeah, but how do we tell them that?
We don't. Why do we need to tell them anything?
...
No, seriously, we don't need to tell them anything. And none of this has anything to do with fearing critical examination.
So do you fear critical examination?
Not the examination I have done.
Can you do more?
Absolutely.
Than why don't you?
Because my tools suck. I want better tools.
And when you get better tools?
Then I work on the framework of belief.
And then?
I make sure the new beliefs coming in are solid and useful.
And then?
Then I look at my old beliefs.
Which ones?
The ones affecting everyday behavior; then the ones affecting monthly choices, yearly, and so on.
Why not start with the bigger ones?
Because they are built on smaller ones.
Really?
Uh, yes?
How do you know?
Where is this going?
Answer the question.
Hmm...
...
Okay, something has to drive the bigger choices.
Like Theism.
No, Theism is a bigger belief.
That's what I meant.
Oh, okay. Yeah, like Theism. Theism is something that affects a larger scope of actions than others.
So why focus on the small stuff?
Because the small stuff is easier to attach to Reality.
Okay, that makes sense. Give me an example.
Assuming my tools work well, the way I spend my daily time.
Sure, that makes sense. And then?
The subjects to spend the time on.
Okay.
I suspect that Theism will hit at this point.
Right. And are you scared of that?
No.
Why not?
Because it is so far out I cannot predict anything about it. Even if I feared losing Theism, I have no reason to think I will drop theism from critical examination.
Okay. But do you fear losing Theism?
Well, sure. What was the original question?

If you don't expect to lose it, why are you so scared of critically examining it?

[interrupted by the show]


Okay, so I fear losing Theism but the remaining question is whether I am scared of critically examining it.
First, do I even accept the first part of this question: "If you don't expect to lose it..."
Yes, I said that clearly.
So if you were to lose it, would it be through critical examination?
Yeah, probably.
So critical examination is the most likely way to lose Theism.
Yes.
And I fear losing Theism.
In the sense that I fear not having it.
So the most likely path to this end is through critical examination.
Yes.
Does that make you fear critical examination?
No. If anything, I fear what it might do.
Would that prevent you from the examination?
If the fear was strong enough... sure.
Is it strong enough?
No. I have critically examined areas of my Theism.
But those really weren't core aspects. They would never attack Theism, only particular beliefs inside of Theism.
Which brings us back to the wall around Theism.
Right, so we are back in the same place.
Well, what have we learned?
- I fear not having Theism for various reasons
- I am not ready to critically examine Theism
-- Event X
-- Higher priorities (better tools, incoming beliefs, beliefs that are "closer" to Reality)
- Theism will eventually be critically examined
- When this happens, I do not expect Theism to fall
- If Theism is untrue I will want to know it is untrue
- I still fear not having Theism even if it is untrue
- The fear has little to do with belief and more to do with the fallout of not believing

[interrupted]


So the direct answer to the question is that I am not critically examining Theism because (a) I don't expect significant progress and (b) doing other things will likely improve my ability to critically examine things which will eventually be useful with Theism.

Followup questions for a future time:

  • Completing analysis of the list of potential fears. I only looked at one.
  • Looking at the list of reasons I might fear critical examination. I ended up taking a completely different route to the conclusion... so most of this was extraneous.
  • Convenient Ignorance is still an interesting topic. Is there a full post here?
  • How does Belief in Belief work with beliefs that are self-referential and dictate morality? Should it be a red flag when a belief includes the clause, "And believing this belief is good"? Hunches say yes.
  • I didn't really define the wall around Theism.
  • At some point, I will probably need to explain and define Event X. I expect this to be troublesome and slightly awkward. I apologize if this vagueness annoys you; I do not apologize for being vague.
  • This question was never directly answered: "If you tried, right now, to critically examine Theism without undoing X, what would happen?" It would be good to revisit.
  • The actual priority list could use a good examination.
  • This sentence may be touching a bigger topic: "Because the small stuff is easier to attach to Reality." Something connected to that would provide enough material for a full post. It is likely someone has already posted it... so start with a search.
  • In the meantime, whilst not examining Theism, what is the correct way to act?
Comment author: JGWeissman 01 February 2010 10:07:48PM 1 point [-]

I still fear not having Theism even if it is untrue

Why?

How has this affected your thinking?

Comment author: MrHen 01 February 2010 10:25:39PM *  0 points [-]

There are impacts from not having Theism. The most obvious are social. Most of the others are easy enough to deal with. There is also a really, really vague one that I haven't figured out how to do talk about yet.

Sorry there isn't more information being offered here.

I don't understand your second question.

Comment author: pjeby 01 February 2010 08:58:29PM 5 points [-]

I find this self-dialog very interesting; in certain aspects it resembles the sort of self-dialog I teach people to use to throw off more mundane fears and mental/emotional blocks, outdated moral injunctions, etc.

There are a few places in what you're doing where a more focused approach would be helpful, though. For example, I would define an outcome and a test procedure: what are you attempting to change, and how will you know if you changed it? This alone will help you trim distractions a bit.

Also, generally speaking, the key to getting rid of an irrational belief is to clearly identify the past negative consequences associated with disbelief in that belief. Your expectations of what will happen in the future are usually either an irrelevant speculative extrapolation by your logical mind, or a simple projection from emotional memory... And it's the latter category that's relevant, as long as you focus on identifying the "near", sensory memory of the events your future prediction is based on.

In particular, you are looking for memories involving the loss of either personal status/significance, the loss of connective bonding, the loss of perceived safety, or the loss of available novelty/stimulation, (with these latter two being far less common), associated with either you or someone else failing to believe (or act upon) the belief in question.

The neurological phenomenon known as "reconsolidation" explains why access to the original memory is useful; it's simplest to remove an emotional attachment to a thought or belief by reinterpreting the original memory that triggers the emotions, rather than to build elaborate reroutings of thought "downstream" of the source.

Once you've identified the specific memory you're using to form your emotional/intuitive judgment (creating the fear), you can use further questioning to cast doubt on your original interpretation of events, consider other possible interpretations, wonder whether the situation is different, etc... and in the process, this sets up alternative lines of thought linked from the original memory, allowing you to have a different emotional probability distribution, so to speak.

I'm being necessarily terse here, as I know of at least two whole books that have been written on minor variations of this basic process: "Loving What Is" by Byron Katie, and "Recreating Your Life" by Morty Lefkoe, each proposing a different sequence and set of questions, but essentially following the same general process I've just described. I've also done workshops on my own set of variations, with slightly different scopes of applicability than either of their methods.

Either book, however, is quite good with respect to having lots of example dialogues to show how to apply their processes in practice, and either one would, I think be helpful in focusing your approach to this, or any other attempt to change an emotional belief or judgment.

Comment author: MrHen 01 February 2010 09:58:26PM 4 points [-]

There are a few places in what you're doing where a more focused approach would be helpful, though. For example, I would define an outcome and a test procedure: what are you attempting to change, and how will you know if you changed it? This alone will help you trim distractions a bit.

Agreed. I posted Easy Predictors as an attempt to get input from the community about easy to test predictor beliefs but didn't get much of a response. I am keeping track of smaller things that have easy turnaround times to see if it is possible to do this sort of thing informally.

This does not apply to outcomes of belief creation, however. Is there a good way to test things like that? Or am I misinterpreting your suggestion? Or... ?

The rest of your comment is interesting to me because it directly focuses on the prediction of trauma due to dropping Theism (and related subjects). I hadn't really thought about the details of the fallout beyond key trouble spots. Is this a fair two-sentence reduction of your suggestions?

Looking at similar past events that carry the same emotional trauma due to dropped beliefs can give me the ability to question the validity of my fear of the future by comparing and contrasting the differences. In addition, this process may reveal a solution to the projected trauma by preventing it from happening or weakening its impact.

Am I close?

Comment author: orthonormal 02 February 2010 01:56:04AM 0 points [-]

Mr. Hen, I'm going to break custom and say something that may be regarded as poisoning the well. It's my conclusion that P.J. Eby is more or less a quack trying to drum up support for his psychological services, and that (in such an important matter as this) you shouldn't be trying to understand his jargon, let alone trying to take his advice.

His persistent trumpeting of perceptual control theory, which couples grandiose claims of precision with a complete lack of experimental support, is telling, and it's not the only red flag I've seen...

Comment author: pjeby 02 February 2010 04:01:18AM 7 points [-]

This does not apply to outcomes of belief creation, however. Is there a good way to test things like that? Or am I misinterpreting your suggestion? Or... ?

I mean that if you're going to go digging around your head to change something, it would be best to have a criterion by which you can judge whether or not you've succeeded. Otherwise, you can rummage around in there forever. ;-)

An example criterion in this case might be "Thinking about not believing in God no longer causes an emotional reaction, as evidenced by my physical response to a specific thought about that."

Defining a test in this way -- i.e., observing whether your (repeatable) physical reaction to a thought has changed -- allows you to determine whether any particular approach has succeeded or failed. I suggested the two books I did because I have found it relatively easy to produce such repeatable, testable results with their techniques, once I got the hang of paying attention to my sensory responses to the questions asked, and ignoring my logical/abstract ones. (Since changing one's logical beliefs isn't the hard part.)

The rest of your comment is interesting to me because it directly focuses on the prediction of trauma due to dropping Theism (and related subjects). I hadn't really thought about the details of the fallout beyond key trouble spots. Is this a fair two-sentence reduction of your suggestions?

Looking at similar past events that carry the same emotional trauma due to dropped beliefs can give me the ability to question the validity of my fear of the future by comparing and contrasting the differences. In addition, this process may reveal a solution to the projected trauma by preventing it from happening or weakening its impact.

No, what I'm saying is that your projection is based on some specific, sensory experience(s) you had, like for example your parents speaking disparagingly about atheists, or other non-followers of your parents' belief system. At some point, to feel threatened by being outcast, you had to learn who the outgroups were, and this learning is primarily experiential/emotional, rather than intellectual, and happens on a level that bypassed critical thought (e.g. because of your age, or because of the degree of emotion in the situation).

Identifying this experience and processing it through critical thought, weakens the emotional response triggered by the thought, then gives you the ability to think rationally about the subject again... thereby leading to potential solutions. Right now, the fear response paralyzes your critical and creative thinking, making it very hard to see what solutions may be in front of you.

IOW, your prediction of trauma comes from a past trauma -- our brains don't come with a built-in prior probability distribution for what beliefs will cause people to like or not like us. ;-) If you want to switch off the fear, you have to change the prediction, which means changing the probability data in your memory... which means accessing and reinterpreting the original sensory experience data.

In order to find this information, you focus on the sensory portion of your prediction, prior to verbalization. That is, when you ask, "What bad thing is going to happen?" refrain from verbalizing and pay attention to the images, feelings, and general impressions that arise. Then, let your mind drift back to when you first saw/felt/experienced something like that.

A recent personal example: I discovered yesterday that the reason I never gave my software projects a "1.0" version is because I was afraid to declare anything "finished" or "complete"... but the specific reason, was that when I did chores as a kid, or cleaned my room, my mother found faults and yelled at me. Emotionally, I learned that as long as someone else could possibly find a way to improve it, I was not allowed to call it "finished", or I would be shamed (status reduction).

Until I uncovered this specific way in which I came by my emotional response, all my conscious efforts to overcome this bad habit were without effect. The emotion biased my conscious thoughts in such a way that I really and truly sincerely believed that my projects were not "finished"... because the definition I was unconsciously using for "finished" didn't allow me to be the one who declared them so.

But having specifically identified the source of this learning, it was trivial to drop the emotional response that drove the behavior... and immediately after doing so, I realized that there were a wide variety of other areas in my life affected by this bias, that I hadn't noticed before.

Most psychological discussion of fears tends to focus on the abstract level, i.e. obviously I was afraid to declare things finished, for "fear of criticism". But that abstract knowledge is almost entirely useless for actually changing the feelings, and therefore removing the bias. Mostly, what such abstract knowledge does is sometimes allow people to spend a lifetime trying to work around or compensate for their feeling-driven biases, rather than actually changing them.

And that's why I urge you to focus on specific sensory experience information in your dialoging, and treat all abstract, logical, or verbally sophisticated thoughts that arise in response to your questions as being lies, rumor, and distraction. If your logical abstract thoughts were actually in charge of your feelings, you'd already be done. Save 'em till the bias has been repaired.

Comment author: AngryParsley 02 February 2010 02:04:22AM 0 points [-]

There is a wall. That belief isn't accessible through critical examination.

Are you talking about separate magesteria or something? How does one get correct beliefs without examining evidence and understanding arguments?

Comment author: MrHen 02 February 2010 03:01:49AM 1 point [-]

No. This is not separate magesteria.

Okay, I guess the first point is that "belief" for a majority of my belief network was not Predictor based. It is Action based. The concept of separate magesteria applies to a Predictor based belief system such as the Map/Territory concept promoted here. An Action based belief system has trouble with the concepts of magesteria.

The whole system is ridiculously complicated because I never bothered to sit down and sort it out. Theism is behind a wall of beliefs built on a system completely incompatible with Predictor based beliefs. "Incompatible," here, means "untranslatable."

If I am not making sense I can try another path of explanation. I am typing up a full explanation now, actually, so... yeah.

Comment author: dlthomas 29 April 2012 03:20:13PM *  9 points [-]

[Y]ou should be as ready to drop it to 69% as raising it to 71%.

No, you should be as ready to drop it to 69% as raise it to ~70.98%. With rounding, obviously, the above isn't numerically wrong, but that's not my objection: it encourages the reader to think of probability updates in percentages as addative, which is wrong.

(edited: fixed my wrong numbers...)

Comment author: TheOtherDave 29 April 2012 04:04:04PM 2 points [-]

Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. Speaking as someone who keeps making this mistake despite knowing better, I appreciate the attempt to discourage me from it.

Comment author: ciphergoth 03 March 2013 07:47:01AM 1 point [-]

Your numbers are still wrong I'm afraid - guessing you mean ~70.98%...

Comment author: dlthomas 31 July 2013 04:32:53AM 0 points [-]

Yes, fixed.