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Fake Justification

36 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 01 November 2007 03:57AM

Many Christians who've stopped really believing now insist that they revere the Bible as a source of ethical advice.  The standard atheist reply is given by Sam Harris:  "You and I both know that it would take us five minutes to produce a book that offers a more coherent and compassionate morality than the Bible does."  Similarly, one may try to insist that the Bible is valuable as a literary work.  Then why not revere Lord of the Rings, a vastly superior literary work?  And despite the standard criticisms of Tolkien's morality, Lord of the Rings is at least superior to the Bible as a source of ethics.  So why don't people wear little rings around their neck, instead of crosses?  Even Harry Potter is superior to the Bible, both as a work of literary art and as moral philosophy.  If I really wanted to be cruel, I would compare the Bible to Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel series.

"How can you justify buying a $1 million gem-studded laptop," you ask your friend, "when so many people have no laptops at all?"  And your friend says, "But think of the employment that this will provide—to the laptop maker, the laptop maker's advertising agency—and then they'll buy meals and haircuts—it will stimulate the economy and eventually many people will get their own laptops."  But it would be even more efficient to buy 5,000 OLPC laptops, thus providing employment to the OLPC manufacturers and giving out laptops directly.

I've touched before on the failure to look for third alternatives.  But this is not really motivated stopping.  Calling it "motivated stopping" would imply that there was a search carried out in the first place.

In The Bottom Line, I observed that only the real determinants of our beliefs can ever influence our real-world accuracy, only the real determinants of our actions can influence our effectiveness in achieving our goals.  Someone who buys a million-dollar laptop was really thinking, "Ooh, shiny" and that was the one true causal history of their decision to buy a laptop.  No amount of "justification" can change this, unless the justification is a genuine, newly running search process that can change the conclusion.  Really change the conclusion.  Most criticism carried out from a sense of duty is more of a token inspection than anything else.  Free elections in a one-party country.

To genuinely justify the Bible as a lauding-object by reference to its literary quality, you would have to somehow perform a neutral reading through candidate books until you found the book of highest literary quality.  Renown is one reasonable criteria for generating candidates, so I suppose you could legitimately end up reading Shakespeare, the Bible, and Godel, Escher, Bach.  (Otherwise it would be quite a coincidence to find the Bible as a candidate, among a million other books.)  The real difficulty is in that "neutral reading" part.  Easy enough if you're not a Christian, but if you are...

But of course nothing like this happened.  No search ever occurred.  Writing the justification of "literary quality" above the bottom line of "I <heart> the Bible" is a historical misrepresentation of how the bottom line really got there, like selling cat milk as cow milk.  That is just not where the bottom line really came from.  That is just not what originally happened to produce that conclusion.

If you genuinely subject your conclusion to a criticism that can potentially de-conclude it—if the criticism genuinely has that power—then that does modify "the real algorithm behind" your conclusion.  It changes the entanglement of your conclusion over possible worlds.  But people overestimate, by far, how likely they really are to change their minds.

With all those open minds out there, you'd think there'd be more belief-updating.

Let me guess:  Yes, you admit that you originally decided you wanted to buy a million-dollar laptop by thinking, "Ooh, shiny".  Yes, you concede that this isn't a decision process consonant with your stated goals.  But since then, you've decided that you really ought to spend your money in such fashion as to provide laptops to as many laptopless wretches as possible.  And yet you just couldn't find any more efficient way to do this than buying a million-dollar diamond-studded laptop—because, hey, you're giving money to a laptop store and stimulating the economy!  Can't beat that!

My friend, I am damned suspicious of this amazing coincidence.  I am damned suspicious that the best answer under this lovely, rational, altruistic criterion X, is also the idea that just happened to originally pop out of the unrelated indefensible process Y.  If you don't think that rolling dice would have been likely to produce the correct answer, then how likely is it to pop out of any other irrational cognition?

It's improbable that you used mistaken reasoning, yet made no mistakes.

 

Part of the Against Rationalization subsequence of How To Actually Change Your Mind

Next post: "Fake Optimization Criteria"

Previous post: "Motivated Stopping and Motivated Continuation"

Comments (46)

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Comment author: michael_vassar3 01 November 2007 05:22:46AM 2 points [-]

Are we judging by the average literary merit of a page or the total literary merit summed over the pages. If the former the bible is cat litter, as is the Koran etc but by the latter criterion both Bible and Koran surely have many translations that at least trump the first book of Harry Potter. I don't know about the later books. I had no desire to read on, as a series may get better but authors capable of that first book simply aren't plausibly capable of writing things that are actually worth my reading. Seriously it is worth asking that question with regard to judging artists. Evaluate on the best work, the average work, or the total. By criterion 1 or 3 Shakespeare merits his reputation, but his average is not so hot.

Comment author: Selfreferencing 01 November 2007 05:56:10AM 1 point [-]

Eliezer,

You say: "If you genuinely subject your conclusion to a criticism that can potentially de-conclude it - if the criticism genuinely has that power - then that does modify "the real algorithm behind" your conclusion."

Why do you think it's an epistemic duty to appeal to subject your views to criticisms that can potentially de-conclude it? Or do you think this? If you think it, do you think the duty is restricted? Or is it universal?

If you say that it's not a duty, then fine. But you seem to think it is. If you think that it's universal, you're going to undermine your normative beliefs, I think, including your beliefs about the normativity of probability theory. If you think it's restricted, then I think you're going to have a bit of a time figuring out a dividing line between the beliefs included and the beliefs excluded that isn't ad hoc. But you may be able to do so.

But go ahead, give it a shot. I'll be interested in seeing you slog through some epistemology, rather than merely pontificating about the glories of the Church of Universal Evidentialism. ;)

Comment author: Curiouskid 16 October 2011 11:00:16PM 0 points [-]

How would it undermine his normative beliefs if he thought it was universal?

Comment author: Selfreferencing 01 November 2007 05:58:15AM 0 points [-]

Unless of course you've already piled through these matters. If so, then link me and I'll shut up. A cursory check yielded little.

Comment author: Doug_S. 01 November 2007 05:58:17AM 1 point [-]

If I really wanted to be cruel, I would compare the Bible to Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel series.

I'm not sure how to interpret that statement; I rather liked the Kushiel series...

Comment author: nerdbound 01 November 2007 06:09:07AM 12 points [-]

There's always a problem with judging artistic works from different time periods. Shakespeare might be better than the Bible, but Shakespeare would not exist without the Bible. The Bible is an 'influence', as we would call it in indie music. Sure, you might not enjoy listening to Can all the time (witness the terrible "Drunk and Hot Girls" on the new Kanye West album), but Can's influence is seen throughout experimental music. So you don't diss Can either, or you'll lose all your cred. In the same way, the Bible's historical period gives it value, because it created so much cultural motion and thought. I think this is a deeper point than mere 'renown'. It's not even that the Bible is necessarily an 'innovative' literary work. It's that, rightly or wrongly, people thought it was deep and exciting stuff and copied and wrote about it until, rightly or wrongly, it became important. But that's how all art becomes art.

The Bible has a bunch of beautiful metaphors/parables in the New Testament, and beautiful poetry in the Old Testament. I think Job is an excellent literary work for its time, as is Ecclesiastes for its time. Hell, Ecclesiastes is an important literary work for any time, and should be required reading for anyone educated, IMO.

And what on Earth makes you think that a neutral reading of the Bible is easy if you're not a Christian? Are you saying that anti-Christian biases do not exist?

I don't think a neutral search is at all the right metaphor, as art's historical nature is inescapable. Plato isn't good because a modern reader finds it immediately appealing when compared to other books, or because it is the deepest philosophy ever, it's good because of its place in the history of thought.

I like a lot of your posts about religion, by the way. I only comment to argue. But keep up the good work.

Comment author: MBlume 03 August 2012 07:40:59PM *  2 points [-]

Note also that the King James translation was also a work of literature commissioned at great expense by a monarch with absolute power to choose all-stars.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 01 November 2007 06:52:01AM 5 points [-]

Doug, I also liked the Kushiel series, enough to hold it up as an example of successful deep wisdom.

Selfreferencing, see What is Evidence? and A Priori.

Nerdbound, I don't deny the Bible has had a vast impact on many important works of art and in that sense the Bible is indisputably artistically influential. You could quite possibly make an objective case that the Bible, which has influenced works ranging from the Kushiel books to Bach's music to the Jack webcomic to Buffy the Vampire Slayer television episodes, is the most influential book in the history of humanity to date.

But this doesn't make the Bible good art, just good marketing.

Ecclesiastes... okay, I concede that Ecclesiastes is beautiful. Wrong, but beautiful. The Song of Solomon likewise qualifies as real art. Both are way out of character for the rest of the Bible. (The Orthodox Jewish "allegorical" translations of the Song of Solomon are hysterical.) The Bible contains works by many authors and some of the later additions are not a total wash. But Jacqueline Carey at her best is better than the Bible at its best - even for piety!

Comment author: Daniel_Humphries 01 November 2007 07:05:14AM 1 point [-]

Eliezer:

A nice, clear explanation of Fake Justification. Thanks.

I would chime in with the others that the perceived literary value of the Bible is not (generally) a Fake Justification. It is a great work; it must be judged on its own merits (that is to say... for what it is "trying" to be, and for the time period it is composed in). Literature is a human endeavor, and literature can have immense value qua literature if it teaches us about humans in a unique, effective, and compelling way. It doesn't have a classical story arc to it, like the Lord of the Rings, but that's not reason enough to disregard it. (Though a lack of hobbitses might be compelling).

Judging ancient works by modern standards is a Freshman Comp 101 mistake. The Iliad is not only great because it is old and famous. It is also just plain great.

But, of course this doesn't take away from your larger point in the slightest. Insofar as "The Bible is Great Literature!!" is done as a sort of back-justification when the religious claims of the Bible are acknowledged to be false, it is faulty.

Topo: What? I don't understand you at all.

Comment author: Henry_V 01 November 2007 11:17:26AM 1 point [-]

"Easy enough if you're not a Christian, " .

Eliezer, you've really begun to go far afield from your desire to "overcome bias". An atheist can have a neutral reading of the Bible? A Jew? A Muslim?

"Superior literary work" is itself an opinion. How can opinions be separated from bias? It's their very definition. Or, do you think some opinions are "more equal" than others. How do you choose paint colors for your bathroom?

I've lost a great deal of respect for you in this post, because you're expressing your opinions in the guise of rationality.

Comment author: pdf23ds 01 November 2007 11:59:32AM 2 points [-]

The real difficulty is in that "neutral reading" part. Easy enough if you're not a Christian, but if you are...

As a teen, I was a fundamentalist Christian. When I began to take my faith seriously, I set about doing some apologetics, and did some work on biblical inerrancy. Well, after a little research, I found that inerrancy just didn't hold up. (Most lists don't contain the good examples, unfortunately.) So I became an atheist.

I think fundamentalism is precarious, because it encourages a scientific viewpoint with regards to the faith, which requires ignorance or double-think to be stable. In the absence of either, it implodes.

Comment author: Silas 01 November 2007 01:19:52PM -2 points [-]

Eliezer_Yudkowsky: Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter *are not* superior literature to the Bible. Remember, literary superiority means "whatever an elite community of academics decides is superior", so there's no inconsistency, just circularity.

It's true that art's greatness *should* be determined by such double blind tests; otherwise, it's just an inbred, self-congratulatory game. Very few tests of this sort have been performed, and canonical works always fail. Maybe five people noticed Joshua_Bell's extreme greatness, and several of them were already tainted by advance praise of his work. And then in the case of that woman who submitted Jane_Austen's work, publishers either recongized it, or reasoned it wouldn't sell, even though her work, of course, does sell.

Admiring Shakespeare also seems to better correlate with "trying to activate the applause lights" than actual admiration. How do people's use of their own time on Shakespeare compare to e.g. the Halo series?

Comment author: Recovering_irrationalist 01 November 2007 02:05:53PM 1 point [-]

Of course if the Bible is a work of extraordinary moral and artistic depth, you could not be expected to see it. So this proves nothing. Either it is not or you are not up to judging it.

I've lost a great deal of respect for you in this post, because you're expressing your opinions in the guise of rationality.

Do I detect a growing trend for dismissing Eliezer as a whole package since his recent trend for arguments for things that happen to be subconciously abhorrent?

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 01 November 2007 02:45:46PM 11 points [-]

Topo: Of course if the Bible is a work of extraordinary moral and artistic depth, you could not be expected to see it.

Henry V: Eliezer, you've really begun to go far afield from your desire to "overcome bias". An atheist can have a neutral reading of the Bible? A Jew? A Muslim?

Ahem. (Clears throat:)

Now Beowulf bode in the burg of the Scyldings,
leader beloved, and long he ruled
in fame with all folk, since his father had gone
away from the world, till awoke an heir,
haughty Healfdene, who held through life,
sage and sturdy, the Scyldings glad.

But I guess neither of you can possibly look at this translated poetry and guess whether the original was a worthy work of art, since you are atheists with respect to the existence of Grendel. You take a position on the existence of dragons: you are biased in the guise of rationality!

It is pure Judeo-Christian-Islamic exceptionalism, I regret to inform you, to think that failing to believe in the Bible God signifies anything more than failing to believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Likewise the notion that no one can properly judge the Lord of the Rings as literature, because we either believe in Frodo's factual existence or disbelieve it.

Now I am, as it happens, probably prejudiced against the text of the Old Testament in particular, not because I'm an atheist, but because my parents and teachers forced me to read the damn thing; and because it represents part of a great corruption that nearly ruined my childhood and still divides my parents from me. Even so, I can read literary works that praise Death, and to praise death is also a great corruption of human spirit, and yet I judge these works as well-executed. Having being forced to read the whole damn thing, I think I'd have noticed if the Old Testament resembled literature, rather than a census report. It's boring. Full stop.

Silas: Admiring Shakespeare also seems to better correlate with "trying to activate the applause lights" than actual admiration. How do people's use of their own time on Shakespeare compare to e.g. the Halo series?

I'm on record as stating that the second season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is more emotionally moving than Romeo and Juliet. But even so, Buffy is not written in iambic pentameter. I have to concede Shakespeare credit for writing poetry and literature at the same time. Perhaps many greater contemporaries were lost to time; but still the feat is impressive. (I couldn't do it... maybe poets find it less impressive.)

Daniel: Judging ancient works by modern standards is a Freshman Comp 101 mistake.

Only if you're trying to be fair. Isaac Newton was one of the great discoverers of the ages. He is no longer a good physicist. This is right and proper. All arts should move forward, and if they don't, something is wrong. If no one had ever done better than Shakespeare - as evaluated by a blinded judge who didn't know Shakespeare was supposed to be great - it would be cause for deep concern. Not all arts are like the art of science, but artists should still learn from each other.

A proper reading of an ancient work should take into account the frame of mind the author expected the reader to have. But modern novels are better, not just different, because modern novels don't include boring damn censuses right in the middle of their text like the Old Testament does. John Galt's lecture in Atlas Shrugged, as disruptive as it may have been to Rand's text - I still remember my incredulity, counting the pages as I flipped them over, searching for the resumption of the plot - has nothing on the Old Testament.

Time moves forward; well it should. Incidentally, if that last sentence had been in Ecclesiastes I'm sure it would be a famous proverb by now, whether it deserved to be or not, just because it "sounds profound" if you read it while expecting profundity.

Comment author: Benoit_Essiambre 01 November 2007 03:10:11PM 1 point [-]

Stefan Pernar, you are right, christianity is fitter than atheism in an evolutionary kind of way. It's members reproduce, spread, divide and conquer like cancer. That's why they exist. But is that such a good thing? Utility wize cancer's strategy is widely unoptimal imo.

Comment author: Mark4 01 November 2007 03:13:22PM 2 points [-]

Why do, "Many Christians who've stopped really believing now insist that they revere the Bible as a source of ethical advice?"

I frame the stated arguments as proxy arguments rather than "fake."

As an atheist in a Christian cultural mileau, I found use in reading the Bible as a background info about Christians and the powerful Christian aspect of our culture. Jews too, and to a lesser extent Islam. I've seen how Christians who used to believe do not become like me simply because they no longer really believe. Upbringing sets many moral/ethical defaults, and these defaults are not systematically changed by rejecting Christian theistic epistemology.

Messing with defaults is dangerous.

Also of course carrying a Bible around is good camophlage. If you disturb the thinking of your neighbors too much, they'll crucify you. I learned that in the Bible.

Many people know these things without being able to articulate them accurately. Less often, they aren't willing. So they latch on to proxy arguments. Insofar as they keep you from messing with their defaults, the proxies may serve a useful purpose.

Comment author: Benoit_Essiambre 01 November 2007 03:16:33PM 0 points [-]

Oh and Stephan, why not have instead something like the Church or Reality an open source reason based religion, or even an atheistic compassion based religion like buddhism? Instead often violent divide and conquer based religions such as the abrahamic religions you mentioned. These religions are very immoral if you ask me.

Comment author: Michael_Sullivan 01 November 2007 03:48:56PM 0 points [-]

I think fundamentalism is precarious, because it encourages a scientific viewpoint with regards to the faith, which requires ignorance or double-think to be stable. In the absence of either, it implodes.

It requires more than merely a scientific viewpoint toward the faith, but a particular type of strong reductionism.

In my experience it is much easier to take the christian out of a fundamentalist christian, than to take the fundamentalist out of a fundamentalist christian. A lot of the most militant atheists seem to have begun life by being raised in a fundamentalist or orthodox tradition. The epistemology stays the same, only the result changes. Deciding on an appropriate epistomology is a much harder and deeper question to resolve than merely what to conclude about God v. No God given a strong reductionist epistemology Under SRE, something in the neighborhood of atheism, antheism or very weak agnosticism becomes a very clear choice once you get rid of explicit indoctrination to the contrary.

But strong reductionist epistemology can't really be taken as a given.

Comment author: Nick_Tarleton 01 November 2007 04:11:42PM 2 points [-]

I think fundamentalism is precarious, because it encourages a scientific viewpoint with regards to the faith, which requires ignorance or double-think to be stable. In the absence of either, it implodes.

This GNXP post elaborates well on that point.

Deciding on an appropriate epistomology is a much harder and deeper question

Have you read The Simple Truth?

Comment author: B.H. 01 November 2007 06:58:10PM 2 points [-]

I, too, enjoyed Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. But note that Tolkien was a devout Catholic who took the Bible very seriously. To announce that LOTR is superior to the Bible puts you in the same camp as the woman who, reading "Hamlet" for the first time in middle-age, stopped reading it halfway through because it was filled with cliches.

Try overcoming anti-religious bias.

Comment author: pdf23ds 01 November 2007 08:59:08PM 0 points [-]

Michael, I think you might be right about the epistemology thing. I am definitely a reductionist.

Nick, I wonder how the epistemology of The Simple Truth compares to a reductionist epistemology. It seems like it might be neutral in that regard. On the other hand, I think it puts Occam's Razor in a pretty central position, which might be said to strongly favor reductionism.

For me, the opposite of magical thinking is reductionism. The Simple Truth is basically a response to magical thinking.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 01 November 2007 09:09:21PM 12 points [-]

You know, I've attacked religion a lot of times on this blog. I've said that faith is the equivalent of losing your eyesight, and that the word "God" functions primarily as a curiosity-stopper. These, by my standards, are just about the most nastiest things I could say of any belief system. But these attacks don't seem to have provoked half the response of suggesting that the Bible is not good literature.

Don't people read the damned thing? Say what you like about Shakespeare, there's no way I could do better in five minutes. The Holy Bible fails the five-minutes test. "In the beginning, God created the skies and the land..." If you didn't know where this sentence came from, and you were an editor at a major publishing house who just got it in an unsolicited manuscript, you'd send it back with a note saying: "Show, don't tell."

Here, I'll write something of equal literary quality on-the-fly:

In the dawn of all things there was terrible fire,
brighter than all suns that are or were,
forging all that came after,
the creation light, the searing beginning.

Not particularly inspired, but if you read it with the preconceived expectation that you were about to hear something really profound, it would sound really profound. If those words had been in the first chapter of Genesis, everyone would think it was great poetry because that is what they are obligated to think if they want to maintain their self-image as religious.

One of the scariest aspects of religion is how it destroys artistic judgment. Religious scriptures have no incentive to be well-written because they survive based on being the Word of God, not on convincing blinded judges of their quality.

Comment author: Silas 01 November 2007 09:38:56PM 0 points [-]

Eliezer_Yudkowsky: It's true that the *text* isn't particularly beautiful, but its literary greatness can (more plausibly, at least) be defended on the grounds that it influenced other works and historical events, even if those works weren't good either.

One of the scariest aspects of religion is how it destroys artistic judgment.

Really? That's scarier than systematically tainting entire generations' views through all the non-relgious literature they're they're taught in English classes?

(Incidentally, I think that in judging *current* impact of a canonical work, fair comparison requires that you subtract off the people that were forced to learn about it as part of their childhood education when counting how many people enjoyed it. Grand Theft Auto didn't have that advantage.)

Comment author: jeff_gray2 01 November 2007 10:44:09PM 0 points [-]

eliezer

are you a student of ancient hebrew? (aramaic & greek too, if we're talking about the new testament.) fair enough if you are, but otherwise your claims of implicit authority on comparative literary criticism lie somewhat shallow.

Comment author: g 01 November 2007 11:30:21PM 2 points [-]

Jeff, there is no Aramaic in the New Testament other than a few odd words and phrases quoted from Jesus. There's a little bit in the Old Testament.

It's true that some sorts of literary merit are liable to get lost in translation, but (1) most of the Bible doesn't seem much concerned with that sort of word-level nuance and (2) Hebrew poetry is (so I'm told; I know about six words of Hebrew myself) exceptionally translatable because of its preference for semantic structures like parallelism over syntactic ones like rhyme.

Eliezer, scriptures survive on the basis of being thought to be the Word of God, but they get into the canon in the first place partly on the basis of how satisfying people find them to read, and I suspect that religions survive partly on the basis of how good their scriptures are, and they tend to undergo a bit of editing as time passes. So I think there's *some* selection for things that correlate a bit with literary quality. (But I agree that the literary quality of scriptures tends to be overrated.)

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 02 November 2007 12:22:52AM 3 points [-]

I think you need to think deeply about a universe in which death would not exist before making such claims.

That I most certainly have, Caledonian. See primarily this, this, and this, but also this, and this, as representative of a larger body of transhumanist essays I've executed over the last eleven years.

Comment author: Caledonian2 02 November 2007 12:37:36AM -1 points [-]

Those are laments on what you feel the negative consequences of involuntary death are. Nowhere do I see a systematic examination of what death is and what it does - and doesn't do.

People live in a world where life is fragile and difficult to sustain, and so they cling to life and abhor death. In a world where life was so resilient that it was virtually indestructible, it's death that would be valued.

Comment author: Stefan_Pernar 02 November 2007 12:55:57AM 0 points [-]

Elizier: It is pure Judeo-Christian-Islamic exceptionalism, I regret to inform you, to think that failing to believe in the Bible God signifies anything more than failing to believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

This is plain wrong - the former belief increases fitness while the later does not. Look at religion in the light of rational choice aka game theory instead of plainly true or false. Big difference.

Benoit: Stefan Pernar, you are right, christianity is fitter than atheism in an evolutionary kind of way. It's members reproduce, spread, divide and conquer like cancer. That's why they exist. But is that such a good thing? Utility wize cancer's strategy is widely unoptimal imo.

I argue that it is a good thing in the context of my AI friendliness theory. However I do believe there is something better that could out compete and eventually marginalize it.

Oh and Stephan, why not have instead something like the Church or Reality an open source reason based religion, or even an atheistic compassion based religion like buddhism? Instead often violent divide and conquer based religions such as the abrahamic religions you mentioned. These religions are very immoral if you ask me.

I totally agree. In fact in my writings I repeatedly mention Buddhist teachings as their key concepts seem to arise naturally from my thoughts on AI friendliness. Before you dismiss this as new age mumbo-jumbo I suggest reading pages 105 following of my book on Ai friendliness.

Comment author: Nick_Tarleton 02 November 2007 01:20:09AM 2 points [-]

Stefan, while I have yet to look at your FAI theory in detail, I suggest you read (if you haven't already) this paper by Nick Bostrom arguing that maximizing evolutionary fitness is likely to lead to nothing remotely valuable.

Comment author: Stefan_Pernar 02 November 2007 03:35:09AM 1 point [-]

Nick, truly fascinating read. Thank you. Although I have not read Bostrom's paper prior to today I am glad to find that we come to largely identical conclusions. My core claim 'What is good is what increases fitness' does not mean that I argue for the replacement of humanity with non eudaemonic fitness maximizing agents as Bostrom calls them.

There are two paths to maximizing an individual's fitness:

A) Change an indiidual's genetic/memetic makeup to increase it's fitness in a given environment B) Change an individual's environment to increase it's genetic/memetic fitness

In my AI friendliness theory I argue for option B) using a friendly AGI in which in essence represents Bostrom's singleton.

Comment author: Doug_S. 02 November 2007 06:46:08AM 0 points [-]

The Bible is certainly of great historical interest, as it has had great influence on many things. On the other hand, by the standards of modern literature, much of it just plain sucks. (To be fair, much of it was never intended to be literature in the first place. The U.S. Constitution may be great, but it's not great literature.)

I agree that much of what is considered "great literature" is considered such primarily because it has a reputation for being great literature. If one of Shakespeare's plays was "objectively" awful, literature experts would still be praising it because Shakespeare wrote it.

I've read a lot (although I tend to focus on science fiction and fantasy) and I seem to have developed some methods, mostly unconscious, that I use to rate the quality of what I read. Having read some Shakespeare, my conclusion is that yes, some of his plays really do live up to their reputations. My opinion of the Harry Potter series is that it starts out weak, manages to achieve greatness in book four, but fails to sustain it. Oh, and for the record, I firmly believe that that Terry Pratchett is the best writer who ever had anything published in the English language.

Comment author: douglas 02 November 2007 06:54:38AM 0 points [-]

"Many Christians who've stopped really believeing..." Apparently many Christians have changed their minds in the face of new evidence. "A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather it opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it." Max Planck Did Max find the belief structure of scientists to be more irrational (unchangable in light of new evidence) than Eliezer has found the belief structure of Christians? Is the belief in scientific knowledge more blinding than the belief in the Bible? What am I to make of this evidence?

Comment author: savagehenry 02 November 2007 07:07:35AM 0 points [-]

Daniel: Judging ancient works by modern standards is a Freshman Comp 101 mistake.

Only if you're trying to be fair. Isaac Newton was one of the great discoverers of the ages. He is no longer a good physicist. This is right and proper. All arts should move forward, and if they don't, something is wrong. If no one had ever done better than Shakespeare - as evaluated by a blinded judge who didn't know Shakespeare was supposed to be great - it would be cause for deep concern. Not all arts are like the art of science, but artists should still learn from each other.

Eliezer, I think you hit the nail square on the head here. I've argued with many an english teacher throughout my life about classic works and their merit but I've never succinctly stated what I wanted to say like you just did (the Newton example is perfect haha). If the pinnacle of human literary achievement is a loose collection of writings made by various authors over hundreds of years over several thousand years ago then you're right, something is horrendously wrong, and we all collectively fail at literature as a species.

I think the same of many older works of art and literature. Sure they are important in that they moved human achievement forward, but I'd like to think people have learned from them and improved. For his time Shakespeare was an absolute genius and moved the entire English language forward (admittedly my experience with Shakespeare's contemporaries is limited, but I've read works from earlier authors and found them to be nowhere near as good), but like Eliezer said I can, off the top of my head, think of a dozen things that I think are more beautifully constructed and more emotionally moving than any of Shakespeare's work. As awesome and totally enthralling as I find The Lord of the Rings to be I sincerely hope that 400 years from now someone will have written something that far surpasses it.

Influence is great and all (and should never be ignored), but I firmly believe art of all sorts needs to be constantly re-evaluated and examined based on what is currently being produced to determine its merit. Some things that are old maintain their value while others have been eclipsed by greater more recent works.

Comment author: Doug_S. 02 November 2007 07:47:33AM 1 point [-]

So, what is it that you like better than Shakespeare? I'm always interested in new things to read.

I think the human ability to appreciate literature might have limits; a superintelligent Friendly AI might not be able to write something that is clearly _that_ much better than my current favorite books, because my brain just won't produce stronger reactions to . It could certainly produce a very large quantity of great literature (by human standards) or literature that is clearly better by its own standards (and that would go over my head), but I don't know if it actually could produce something that a "mere" human would perceive as significantly better than the great literature that already exists.

Comment author: caveat_bettor 02 November 2007 07:10:17PM 0 points [-]

I read Shakespeare and Doug Hofstader with great appreciation (as well as the Bible). I'm not sure that the former have as much value for a life better lived, or understood. I'd prefer institutional authority be guided by the Bible over the other works you cite.

What am I missing in those other works, that might guide me in my roles in the family, the state, the marketplace?

Thanks in advance.

Comment author: mnuez 03 November 2007 09:47:54AM -1 points [-]

Leizer!

Let me begin by noting that I'm writing this on Shabbos. Nonetheless, I'd like to make mention of the fact that I LOVE the Jewish Bible. Love it, love it, love it.

Is it a good piece of literary work? That might depend on whether you're a Jew or a goy, and furthermore whether you're a Jew who considers it possible that these words might be more than just some census report or "stam a yid".

Anyhow, I could certainly speak to the subject of what value the Bible might "objectively" have (once we've "overcome our biases" based in childhood and tribal identity) but for now I just want to wish you a gut shabbos. ;-)

And no, no, no - I don;t mean to taunt you. My own opinions are (it appears to me based upon what I've read of yours as well as a few educated guesses) likely quite similar to yours. Furthermore I've read quite a bit of your writing and appreciate it.

Nonetheless, at this exact moment (perhaps because I just came from Sailor's blog and had to fend off a handful of Nazis) I'm a full-fledged yid, and I just wanted to give you a big chabadsker hug :-)

Also, just to reiterate: I love the Jewish Bible. Partially because I've chosen to view it as canon (much as I view Shir Betar as canon - despite its obvious lack of being brought down to us by a Navi in any conventional sense) but,,, for many other reasons as well - and as a literary text of your people (provided one subscribes to the notion of "Peoplehood") it's obviously inspirational.

And in all honesty, as literature it rocks as well. In fact, so many of the literary themes and devices of later literature first showed up (so far as the surviving record indicates) in the Bible - and is thus worthy of appreciation much as Citizen Kane is, despite the later improvements made to Cane-ian themes and directions which showed up in subsequent films.

Ani Yosef! - Tell me you don't tzitter. HaShomer Achi Anochi? - Tell me a chill doesn't run down your spine Ki Sheal Nu: Miyamim Rishoinim asher hayu lifanecha, limin hayoim asher barah eloihim adam al ha'aretz umiktzei hashamayim ad kitzei hashamuyim hanihiyah kadavar hagadoil hazeh oi hashumah kumoihu? etc.... - tell me that isn't dramatic and doesn't give you pause as to the possibility of Moshe referring to some actual event. "Yadeinu lo shafchu hadam hazeh!" - tell me the din of egla arufah isn't brilliant Eicha!! - It's not a lament that rends your heart? etc. etc.

Come on Leizer, fess up!

:-)

mnuez www.mnuez.blogspot.com

Comment author: Nominull2 14 November 2007 03:33:29AM 1 point [-]

I'll admit that I haven't seen the second season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but how does it compare to Romeo and Juliet in terms of comedy? Shakespeare's real talents lie not in mawkish sentimentality, but in clever wordplay and character-driven humor; this is true even of his plays which are supposedly "tragedies".

Comment author: taryneast 07 March 2011 05:42:47PM *  1 point [-]

Buffy is a comedy too - and IMO much better than Romeo and Juliet - which only has a handful of good one-liners. :)

Comment author: RobinZ 19 April 2010 08:02:00PM 6 points [-]

Belated technical note: Richard Dawkins has the Sam Harris-Andrew Sullivan debate in HTML, making searching for:

You and I both know that it would take us five minutes to produce a book that offers a more coherent and compassionate morality than the Bible does. Did I say five minutes? Five seconds--just tear out Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Exodus, and 2 Samuel from the Old Testament, and 2 Thessalonians and Revelation from the New Testament. The book would be mightily improved. Would it then be the most profound book we have on morality (or cosmology, biology, psychology, etc.)? Not by a long shot. But it would be a much better book than it is at present.

...much easier.

Comment author: Wesmaster160 31 December 2010 05:18:00AM *  -2 points [-]

Since the post starts with "Many Christians who've stopped really believing', let's consider a Christian who does believe. If I was looking at a religious text, I'm pretty sure an artistic work would not inspire me to believe in any diety. But, a text that attributes the creation of existence to a diety while also giving me historical facts that at the time I may be able to verify, such as lineage, armies defeated by the Isreal tribes, and the such, then I would be more likely to follow this diety. As a Christian, and proud of it, maybe I am just providing justification for my all ready decided bottom line, but I believe that this arguement is logical.

Comment author: DanielLC 13 October 2011 05:41:56AM 2 points [-]

a text that attributes the creation of existence to a diety while also giving me historical facts that at the time I may be able to verify, such as lineage, armies defeated by the Isreal tribes, and the such, then I would be more likely to follow this diety.

So, if someone wrote down his religeon a thousand years ago, you won't believe it, but if he adds some current events you will? That would only show that it was written at the time and not made up later. It doesn't make their beliefs correct.

If they give a lot of detail it might be evidence that what they wrote about miracles was correct (If the miracles were exaggerations, some of the historical facts would probably be exaggerated too).

You said that they should have historical facts that you are able to verify. I would consider this a fact justification unless you actually verify it. You might argue that someone else would have checked, and you'd know about it. Someone did check, but you wouldn't know about it.

The Bible does not have a perfect historical record. For example, it describes a large exodus of Isrealites that never happened.