Less Wrong is a community blog devoted to refining the art of human rationality. Please visit our About page for more information.

Mere Messiahs

40 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 02 December 2007 12:49AM

Followup toSuperhero Bias

Yesterday I discussed how the halo effect, which causes people to see all positive characteristics as correlated—for example, more attractive individuals are also perceived as more kindly, honest, and intelligent—causes us to admire heroes more if they're super-strong and immune to bullets.  Even though, logically, it takes much more courage to be a hero if you're not immune to bullets.  Furthermore, it reveals more virtue to act courageously to save one life than to save the world.  (Although if you have to do one or the other, of course you should save the world.)

"The police officer who puts their life on the line with no superpowers", I said, "reveals far greater virtue than Superman, who is a mere superhero."

But let's be more specific.

John Perry was a New York City police officer who also happened to be an Extropian and transhumanist, which is how I come to know his name.  John Perry was due to retire shortly and start his own law practice, when word came that a plane had slammed into the World Trade Center.  He died when the north tower fell.  I didn't know John Perry personally, so I cannot attest to this of direct knowledge; but very few Extropians believe in God, and I expect that Perry was likewise an atheist.

Which is to say that Perry knew he was risking his very existence, every week on the job.  And it's not, like most people in history, that he knew he had only a choice of how to die, and chose to make it matter—because Perry was a transhumanist; he had genuine hope.  And Perry went out there and put his life on the line anyway.  Not because he expected any divine reward. Not because he expected to experience anything at all, if he died.  But because there were other people in danger, and they didn't have immortal souls either, and his hope of life was worth no more than theirs.

I did not know John Perry.  I do not know if he saw the world this way.  But the fact that an atheist and a transhumanist can still be a police officer, can still run into the lobby of a burning building, says more about the human spirit than all the martyrs who ever hoped of heaven.

So that is one specific police officer...

...and now for the superhero.

As the Christians tell the story, Jesus Christ could walk on water, calm storms, drive out demons with a word.  It must have made for a comfortable life:  Starvation a problem?  Xerox some bread.  Don't like a tree?  Curse it.  Romans a problem?  Sic your Dad on them.  Eventually this charmed life ended, when Jesus voluntarily presented himself for crucifixion.  Being nailed to a cross is not a comfortable way to die.  But as the Christians tell the story, Jesus did this knowing he would come back to life three days later, and then go to Heaven.  What was the threat that moved Jesus to face this temporary suffering followed by eternity in Heaven?  Was it the life of a single person?  Was it the corruption of the church of Judea, or the oppression of Rome?  No: as the Christians tell the story, the eternal fate of every human went on the line before Jesus suffered himself to be temporarily nailed to a cross.

But I do not wish to condemn a man who is not truly so guilty. What if Jesus—no, let's pronounce his name correctly: Yeishu—what if Yeishu of Nazareth never walked on water, and nonetheless defied the church of Judea established by the powers of Rome?

Would that not deserve greater honor than that which adheres to Jesus Christ, who was only a mere messiah?

Alas, somehow it seems greater for a hero to have steel skin and godlike powers.  Somehow it seems to reveal more virtue to die temporarily to save the whole world, than to die permanently confronting a corrupt church.  It seems so common, as if many other people through history had done the same.

Comfortably ensconced two thousand years in the future, we can levy all sorts of criticisms at Yeishu, but Yeishu did what he believed to be right, confronted a church he believed to be corrupt, and died for it.  Without benefit of hindsight, he could hardly be expected to predict the true impact of his life upon the world.  Relative to most other prophets of his day, he was probably relatively more honest, relatively less violent, and relatively more courageous.  If you strip away the unintended consequences, the worst that can be said of Yeishu is that others in history did better.  (Epicurus, Buddha, and Marcus Aurelius all come to mind.)  Yeishu died forever, and—from one perspective—he did it for the sake of honesty.  Fifteen hundred years before science, religious honesty was not an oxymoron.

As Sam Harris said:

"It is not enough that Jesus was a man who transformed himself to such a degree that the Sermon on the Mount could be his heart's confession.  He also had to be the Son of God, born of a virgin, and destined to return to earth trailing clouds of glory.  The effect of such dogma is to place the example of Jesus forever out of reach.  His teaching ceases to become a set of empirical claims about the linkage between ethics and spiritual insight and instead becomes a gratuitous, and rather gruesome, fairy tale.  According to the dogma of Christianity, becoming just like Jesus is impossible.  One can only enumerate one's sins, believe the unbelievable, and await the end of the world."

I severely doubt that Yeishu ever spoke the Sermon on the Mount.  Nonetheless, Yeishu deserves honor.  He deserves more honor than the Christians would grant him.

But since Yeishu probably anticipated his soul would survive, he doesn't deserve more honor than John Perry.

 

Part of the Death Spirals and the Cult Attractor subsequence of How To Actually Change Your Mind

Next post: "Affective Death Spirals"

Previous post: "Superhero Bias"

Comments (80)

Sort By: Old
Comment author: jeff_gray2 02 December 2007 02:08:11AM 1 point [-]

1: The Bottom Line. since Yeishu probably genuinely believed he would go to Heaven, he doesn't deserve more honor than John Perry

2: Eliezer, whose bias will this article help overcome? Seriously?

Christians won't accept your premise that Jesus died forever. Atheists presumably don't honor him. Muslims honor him as a prophet, and presumably (many islamic 'fundamentalists') don't honor atheist victims of 'jihad*'. 'The church of Judea[sic]' never had much affinity with Jesus to begin with, & Everyone else who uses the 'Jesus was a great moral teacher' schtick can be beaten into submission with Christianity's so-called unintended consequences. Who is left to persuade?

3: I 2nd Nigel, & I had thought the post had made the point with the John Perry anecdote. Much of the rest feels gratuitous. (& will tend to fill the comments w/ content-lite responses.)

Comment author: Raw_Power 25 September 2010 12:37:19AM 6 points [-]

Nitpicking: I don't believe Muslims would fail to be humbled by such a man. A suicide bomber knows he is taking the easy way out of a life where he expects to succumb to sin (suicide bombers are usually notorious sinners [citation needed, I don't remember where I read that]) by taking a path he was told would guarrantee him a place in Paradise (more importantly, away from Hell). To the likes of him, a man who does what Perry did, with the beliefs with which he did it, commands respect. Though I am purely speculating here: if those alledged Muslims are anything like, say, Fred Phelps, there is no telling whether they would adopt this perspective.

More importantly, while "Jesus dying forever" is not a valid hypothesis for them, you seem to be underestimating a Christian's Willing Suspension Of Belief For The Sake Of Speculation.

Comment author: Rixie 28 July 2013 12:18:47PM 0 points [-]

It's not necessarily solely for the purpose of overcoming bias. He's also telling the truth and letting us see things in a different light.

I think he's saying that atheists should (to a certain extent) honour him, and Christians should believe that he died forever. I'm not familiar with the other religions, but just because someone believes something now, doesn't mean that that will never change. Isn't the whole point of this blog to spread truth around?

Comment author: TGGP4 02 December 2007 03:25:29AM -1 points [-]

The most interesting take on the actual historical Jesus is in Psychology of Prophetism by Koenraad Elst, which claims that Jesus was a schizophrenic narcissist who personally authored Revelations, was a near-anarchist who denounced the Romans and that all the peaceful sayings attributed to him were later additions intended to pacify the Romans.

Comment author: ctuck 11 June 2012 03:53:37PM 3 points [-]

I've never really cared for such attempts to psychoanalyze historical figures because it always comes down to conjecture. The Bible is the most extensive (if not the most accurate) documentation of Jesus' life. Aside from that, we know very little about him save for the long reaching effects that his supposed deeds had on human society.

If you don't trust the bible as a valid source that's fine. A lot of people don't. But without it there just isn't enough information on Jesus to try to determine his personality, beliefs, or motives with any certainty.

Even more disconcerting is the idea that someone could use the bible as evidence against the picture of Jesus that the bible is presenting. In effect it's saying that you trust the validity of the accounts that the people in the bible wrote, but you believe that you (A person who was not there at that time and who has even less knowledge about the actions of Jesus) are more qualified to judge his motives than the people who actually witnessed Jesus' actions in person.

Although, I do think the idea of Jesus as a schizophrenic narcissist makes for great fiction, or perhaps an interesting hypothetical discussion.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 11 June 2012 05:28:35PM 3 points [-]

In effect it's saying that you trust the validity of the accounts that the people in the bible wrote, but you believe that you (A person who was not there at that time and who has even less knowledge about the actions of Jesus) are more qualified to judge his motives than the people who actually witnessed Jesus' actions in person.

This happens all the time in real life. It only sounds silly if you ignore the fact that the writers are a subject one can have knowledge about.

If Sam tells me stories about A and B, and I know a lot about A, I can compare Sam's account of A to my knowledge of A to make inferences about the distortions introduced by Sam's narrative, and I can use those inferences to arrive at a different story about B than the one Sam told, which I consider more reliable than the one Sam told, despite my knowing less than Sam does about B.

Comment author: ctuck 11 June 2012 06:29:12PM *  1 point [-]

That kind of reasoning is definitely possible, and maybe in some cases useful.

But I think the inferred story B is much less reliable than an account of B from a reliable source. Usually when people do this type of historical profiling, they treat their inferences of how things "really happened" with the same weight as an eyewitness account. Probably because "Jesus may have possibly been a schizophrenic narcissist but there's no conclusive evidence to support this" doesn't sell as well.

Edit: I'm not sure if I explained myself propperly so here's a little more to show why I don't like this kind of second hand reasoning.

If you ask a bank robber if he just robbed a bank, most likely he will tell you "No I did not rob that bank." He has reasons to lie to you, so it makes sense that you shouldn't trust him.

However, just because a known bank robber tells you that he didn't rob a bank doesn't mean its not true. Perhaps he was out of state when the bank was robbed. Or perhaps he intended to rob the bank, but someone beat him to it. Or perhaps he DID rob the bank and is trying to prove his innocence. The point is, you don't know.

Knowing how someone would falsify a story, does not prove or disprove the validity of it. It just gives you cause to be wary. Any assumptions you make based off of an untrustworthy source are just as likely to be correct as they are to be false.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 11 June 2012 06:44:57PM 2 points [-]

Sure, if I have a reliable source handy, that's optimal.
It doesn't happen very often.

Even contemporary eyewitness accounts just aren't all that reliable, and only become less so as they are edited and refined and told and retold.
Of course, you're right that an arbitrarily selected account from someone who wasn't even a witness is even less reliable.

In any case, I haven't read Elst's book, so I don't have a worthwhile opinion about it in particular.
That said, I certainly consider "Jesus was a schizophrenic narcissist" more likely than "Jesus was a demigod," based on the relative frequencies of schizophrenic narcissists and demigods in the general population.
The question is whether either theory is likely enough to be worth considering in the first place.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 02 December 2007 03:42:19AM 10 points [-]

Well, I'm sorry if it seems like I'm beating on Christianity, but come on - it makes such a beautiful case study! The point isn't to deconvert people from Christianity, it's to point out how the same flaw that appears in Christianity powers the Superman comics and celebrity cults, and prevents us from thinking that we can do better ourselves. If I were doing a series on cognitive biases contributing to the horror of the Soviet Union, would you accuse me of beating too hard on Communism?

TGGP, Hyam Maccoby makes an interesting case that Yeishu tried to follow the Judaic apocalyptic tradition in detail, but never claimed to be the Son of God and would probably have been quite horrified at the paganism of the concept (like any educated Jew of that era). That part was added later, by an adventurer ignorant of Judaism, namely Paul, who successfully took over and wiped out the actual inheritors of Yeishu's movement, the Ebionites.

Comment author: Different_Jeff2 02 December 2007 04:57:32AM 0 points [-]

Excellent post. I am a little confused on the notion of transhumanism. Once immortality is achieved, where does everyone fit? Do we quit breeding? Do only a chosen few make the immortality cut? Do we upload on to a matrix? And as to AI, if it is to be our descendant, why does it have a moral obligation to keep us around? What purpose would homo erectus serve in our world?

It's curious to me that you would malign Superman, yet strive to be him, laud the hero who accepts his mortal fate, and pity him for it.

I tip my hat to you. Were I laying money in a futures market, I'd bet on you over some cloistered monk to change the world. But I'd cut you both about the same odds for life everlasting.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 02 December 2007 05:30:06AM 15 points [-]

It's curious to me that you would malign Superman, yet strive to be him

Me? Strive to be Superman? Pffft. The human species did not become what it is by lifting heavier weights than other species. There is only one superpower that exists in this universe, and those who seek to master it are called Bayesians.

laud the hero who accepts his mortal fate, and pity him for it.

I don't understand why you think this is a contradiction. If someone accepted having both legs cut off to save others' lives, wouldn't you laud them for that, and yet rail against the fate they accepted - try to cure them if you could?

Comment author: Sharper 02 December 2007 06:22:35AM -3 points [-]

In your "as Christians tell the story", you're missing quite a bit.

Christ's level of suffering in the garden of Gethsemane and on the cross was such that he atoned for all of the sins of everyone who ever lived and ever would live. Atoned, as in "to atone is to suffer the penalty for sins, thereby removing the effects of sin from the repentant sinner and allowing him or her to be reconciled to God".

It's the method by which God is able to temper justice with mercy, through the mechanism of having someone else voluntarily pay a legitimate debt on our behalf.

This level of suffering by definition exceeds any suffering that ever has or ever will be suffered by anyone else, since it essentially includes it all.

Christ suffered willingly and voluntarily, knowing ahead of time what he was getting himself into, in order to save everyone else from being forced to suffer for their own sins. That payment in our place is what provides the opportunity for us to be saved from our spiritual death.

Christ's death on the cross and subsequent resurrection in order to solve physical death is very important, but minor suffering by comparison.

Christ's two part atonement is so beyond the sacrifice made by John Perry that you'd have to start referring to humanly incomprehensible numbers in order to fairly compare them.

Comment author: DanielLC 13 November 2011 07:18:59AM 3 points [-]

The part about Gathsemane is exclusively Mormon doctrine. I'm pretty sure the part about him suffering the pain of our sins, rather than just the comparatively infinitesimal pain of crusifiction, is not.

Comment author: wedrifid 13 November 2011 07:39:40AM *  0 points [-]

(I confirm. The garden part definitely wasn't in my mythology.)

Comment author: DanielLC 13 November 2011 09:14:51PM 0 points [-]

Was the part about him suffering from our sins and not just the cross?

Comment author: wedrifid 14 November 2011 06:09:34AM 1 point [-]

The Gahsmane part wasn't in my mythology. The for sins part was.

Comment author: DanielLC 14 November 2011 06:36:41AM 0 points [-]

Just to make sure: it's that the pain he suffered was from our sins, and not just the cross, right?

Comment author: wedrifid 14 November 2011 07:04:50AM 0 points [-]

Suffering. It wasn't specifically mentioned whether the suffering was all transmuted into physical pain while on the cross. In fact it was the actually being dead part that mattered the most - presumably he got whatever we had coming to us when we die while he was dead.

Comment author: gwern 14 November 2011 07:13:29AM 12 points [-]

Depends on your theology. From what I remember reading Constantine's Sword, Anselm's theology was that Adam & Eve's crime against God was an infinite crime since God is infinite, and so nothing less than another punishment (of an infinite being) could be equally infinite and wipe it out. So it's not that Jesus experienced, packed into 3 short days, the sins or the suffering of all humanity through all time - it's just one crime of lèse majesté had to be balanced out.

(Of course, this is Christianity we're talking about. If you know of fewer than 100 distinct positions, that just shows you haven't done your homework.)

Comment author: Alejandro1 14 November 2011 03:05:29PM 7 points [-]

"Moreover, arguing that an error against God is infinite because He is infinite is like arguing that it is holy because God is, or like thinking that the injuries commited against a tiger must be striped." - Jorge Luis Borges

Comment author: gwern 14 November 2011 03:17:05PM 2 points [-]

A classic. I recently re-read my copy of his Nonfiction, so possibly I actually am remembering it from there rather than Constantine's Sword.

Comment author: komponisto 13 November 2011 10:19:25PM *  2 points [-]

The part about Gathsemane is exclusively Mormon doctrine

Not at all. It was the subject of an oratorio by Beethoven, who (whatever might be said about his religious beliefs) was definitely not a Mormon!

Comment author: DanielLC 13 November 2011 11:36:25PM 2 points [-]

The Wikipedia page you linked to talked about his emotional turmoil, but nothing more. The Mormon belief is that he suffered part of the atonement there. While the emotional turmoil is technically suffering, it's not really on the same scale, and not what Sharper was talking about.

Comment author: kilobug 13 November 2011 08:24:29AM 2 points [-]

If God really let his own son suffer that amount of pain, then he really his the most horrible person that ever existed... and don't tell me there was no other way to atone for the sins, or that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. God is supposed to be omnipowerful, if he is so, just having his son willing to suffer to redeem humanity should be way enough to redeem without having to inflict such incredible pain to him.

Comment author: DanielLC 13 November 2011 11:40:48PM 0 points [-]

The belief is that he either isn't completely omnipotent, or that someone suffering for sins is morally better than nobody suffering. Much the same goes for not sinning.

Comment author: DanielLC 13 November 2011 11:49:04PM 2 points [-]

Can someone explain why this is being voted down? The article assumes that Christ's suffering was limited to the crucifixion. This post points out that that's incorrect. He suffered many orders of magnitude worse than that.

Comment author: p4wnc6 14 November 2011 12:07:21AM *  8 points [-]

I think issue is being taken with the fact that Christ's suffering is being defined as something incomparably greater than what other humans can experience. There are a number of theological points which could be discussed (all fruitlessly in my opinion) but when I sit down to understand the Christ story, I do not attribute metaphysical degrees of suffering to Jesus. The point is that, as Richard Dawkins has said before, the "snapping of fingers" could have been chosen as an adequate basis for atonement, if God so wished it. That God, in this particular myth, required "the shedding of blood" for atonement means that, literally, God is responsible for his own suffering and was fully aware of surviving that suffering, however extensive it might have been. This makes him infinitely less of a hero than John Perry. Trying to literally define Christ's suffering as being however immense so as to render him a hero is not a line of reasoning that I'm prepared to view as reasonable in any sense.

Comment author: DanielLC 14 November 2011 03:03:28AM -1 points [-]

but when I sit down to understand the Christ story, I do not attribute metaphysical degrees of suffering to Jesus.

So, you misunderstand the story, and the post corrected that. Shouldn't that get it voted up?

The point is that, as Richard Dawkins has said before, the "snapping of fingers" could have been chosen as an adequate basis for atonement, if God so wished it.

I don't think that was mentioned in this article.

Comment author: p4wnc6 14 November 2011 04:12:39AM 3 points [-]

So, you misunderstand the story, and the post corrected that. Shouldn't that get it voted up?

I believe the poster misunderstands the story and that the Dawkins quote is relevant to that point. The Christ myth depicts Christ as being God-incarnate suffering in human-format, and therefore suffering in precisely the same way that humans would suffer. I do not agree that it is intended to depict Christ's atonement as categorically more painful nor incomprehensibly painful. This is why these theological debates are fruitless. Since this is all interpretation of myth, I'm not sure there is enough objective evidence here to conclusively favor either interpretation.

Specifically, the incomprehensibility of the suffering was invoked to argue that Christ, in the myth, is more heroic than John Perry is in our understanding of human suffering. I think Dawkins' quote aptly argues against that interpretation. Even if Christ suffered incomprehensibly (I disagree that the myth asserts that he did), his knowledge of surviving the suffering and obtaining what he selfishly wanted (the salvation of mankind) makes him less of a hero than John Perry in my opinion. And many here seem to share that opinion.

If someone wishes to believe that the crucifixion myth matters because of Christ's incomprehensible suffering, that's fine. I disagree that that is a well-supported interpretation of the myth, and even if it were, God himself is the logical cause of his own suffering. He had to prefer to obtain human salvation through the act of suffering in order to arrange the universe such that that was what he required himself to do. Not heroic. In fact, once an entity is omnipotent, attributing heroism at all becomes a tricky matter.

Comment author: DanielLC 14 November 2011 04:26:49AM 0 points [-]

I looked up the Atonement on Wikipedia. I can't seem to tell if he's universally believed to have suffered more than just the crucifixion itself. It doesn't seem to mention it on the main part, but it also doesn't mention it on what Mormons believe differently.

Comment author: Prismattic 14 November 2011 05:13:29AM 5 points [-]

The Christ myth depicts Christ as being God-incarnate suffering in human-format, and therefore suffering in precisely the same way that humans would suffer.

On a historical note, this is true for Orthodox Christianity; not true for monophysitism (and still relevant in, say, the Armenian church).

Comment author: Nick_Tarleton 02 December 2007 06:27:40AM 0 points [-]

Jeff: On your first question, see the transhumanist FAQ. On the second, we would have to build an AI to want to keep us around, but if we succeeded there's no reason it would suddenly decide to do away with us. Purpose is subjective, and we don't need any objective reason to continue existing.

Comment author: Tim_R._Mortiss 02 December 2007 11:21:14AM 7 points [-]

"the tortures the Inquisition visited upon suspected witches"

IIRC, the Inquisition, at least the Spanish Inquisition, wasn't very concerned with witches.

In Spain there simply wasn't a witch-craze comparable to the one raging in other parts of Europe, thanks in no small part to the indifference of the Inquisition. It was when the "punishment" of witches fell on the hands secular authorities that lots of women were killed.

Comment author: Roland2 02 December 2007 01:55:19PM 1 point [-]

Isn't Jesus' real name Yeshua?

Comment author: Caledonian2 02 December 2007 04:08:12PM 0 points [-]

Christ's two part atonement is so beyond the sacrifice made by John Perry that you'd have to start referring to humanly incomprehensible numbers in order to fairly compare them.

Or to put this in terms that Eliezer is likely to at least recognize:

When confronted with the dilemma, Christians claim God chose to torture one man rather than inflict 3^^^3 dust specks on 3^^^3 people. Except that God let the man choose, and the man chose to suffer himself rather than let others go on suffering.

This is of course a deeply silly story once you actually begin to analyze it - just as the dust speck problem is deeply silly. It's just that one story came as part of a religious tradition that Eliezer rejects, and one story was made up by Eliezer. They're equally ridiculous because they're equivalent (or very, very close to being so), but one is seen as absurd and one as proof of our hard-nosed rationalism.

Comment author: Dojan 15 October 2011 11:51:34PM 2 points [-]

Eliezer never claimed that the dust specs in question actually happened. That would be silly! The bible does. He merely devised a thought experiment to get a point across. He might have used jesus's alleged suffering instead, but it would have been a lot less clear, and people would get all hung up on the religiosity instead of the point. He also never claimed that there was any fundamental difference.

Comment author: anonymous19 02 December 2007 06:01:02PM 5 points [-]

I do not believe this myself, but in the interest of fairness:

There are some Christians who believe that the crucifixion was only the most visible outward agony that Jesus suffered. The more significant agony was that he experienced being cut off from God the father. (Hence the famous Aramaic exclamation.) Some Christians have hypotheses that this agony was equivalent to all the weight of all the misery caused by all the sin and guilt ever.

I do not believe you will find direct textual support for this in the Bible, but it is an extant item of faith for some Christians, and it changes the equation somewhat, no?

An important point in this is that God chose to inflict on himself (or his son, or another part of himself) exactly as much anguish as human beings have ever inflicted on themselves and each other. This makes an interesting retort to the theodicy problem: Why does God allow such suffering? We don't know, but he must have a good reason, in that he was willing to experience exactly that much suffering himself.

Other Christians, by the way, differ in saying that Jesus suffered only enough anguish, guilt and misery to equal the harm done by those who will eventually be saved, so his sacrifice was only sufficient to atone for them. This is a point of contention among different Christian sects.

And of course some Christian sects do not believe either of these two alternatives.

In either case, it goes way beyond the physical suffering, and it greatly changes the "facts" in your "case study".

Comment author: michael_vassar3 03 December 2007 06:22:43AM 2 points [-]

It's an interesting hypothetical though to ask what fraction of the population (and what from different demographics and cultures) would even make the sort of minor sacrifice attributed by Eliezer to the Christian story version of Jesus. My guess is still not high. The Christian version of Jesus, after all, sees himself, rightly, as vastly more important than us, and may tend to see his pain as more important for reasons somewhat independent of simple indexicality/selfishness. Maybe this makes his sacrifice comparable to avoiding eating factory farmed meat out of concern for animal suffering?

Comment author: g 03 December 2007 10:42:27AM 2 points [-]

rukidding, Eliezer has already said -- in this very comments thread -- that he isn't aiming to deconvert Christians but to use some features of Christianity as a case study.

Comment author: Michael_G.R. 03 December 2007 04:58:43PM 0 points [-]

Excellent post, Eliezer. Thank you.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 04 December 2007 02:36:05AM 13 points [-]

Why throughout all of your posts do you continue to speak of altruistic action as good or praiseworthy? Evolutionary psychology disproves ethical cognitivism... Just as there's no invisible dragon in my garage, there's also no such as thing as a value or a moral obligation.

Really? I know what a garage would behave like if it contained an invisible dragon - we'd be able to measure the exhaled carbon dioxide, see footprints appearing in the ground, outline it by throwing flour into the air, etc. I know what a garage would behave like if it contained a benevolent God; it would cure the cancer of people placed inside, etc. Can you tell me what a garage would look like if it contains a moral obligation?

It's not that we looked in the morality garage and found that it was empty, but that, rather, morality isn't the sort of thing you find in a garage in the first place.

Comment author: ECL 04 December 2007 02:46:00AM 0 points [-]

Mr. Yudkowsky, It is the fact that purported moral facts add nothing to a description of a state of affairs and have no explanatory or predictive power that they are not facts at all. Statements of moral proposition such as "X-actions are wrong" or "One ought to do X-actions" are rather simply expressions of preferences or pro attitudes for X actions. If one has these preferences, then, those preference combined with a belief that a particular action A is an X-action gives you a reason to perform action A. However, if an agent does not have a pro attitude for X-actions, then the belief that A is an X-action does not give the agent a reason to perform A. So, the fact that an action is altruistic gives me no reason to perform the action unless I already have a pro attitude for altruistic actions. What I can't conceive of is a reason for adopting one set of pro attitudes (such as pro attitudes for altruistic actions) over another set of pro attitudes (such as pro attitudes for selfish actions) since sets of pro attitudes can only be judged good or bad in light of another, higher set of pro attitudes. So, I can't conceive of an agent-independent reason for acting altruistically; all reasons are necessarily agent-relative since a reason for performing a particular action can only be explicated in terms of an agent's already existing preferences. Yet most ethical theories claim to provide people with just such an agent-independent reason for being altruistic. And I think this position is latent in your argument: you seem to think that there are good, agent-independent, rationally derivable reasons for being altruistic, and I want to know what those purported reasons are.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 04 December 2007 03:12:14AM 8 points [-]

So, I can't conceive of an agent-independent reason for acting altruistically

If by that you mean an agent-independent cause of altruistic actions, then I agree. My life would be a lot simpler if Friendly AIs automatically emerged from fully arbitrary Bayesian decision systems.

But I fear that you misinterpret me. I'm simply (a) speaking from within my own moral frame of reference and (b) assuming that my audience is composed of human beings rather than fully arbitrary Bayesian decision systems.

Comment author: Tom_Rees 04 December 2007 10:53:36AM 2 points [-]

Caledonian, I think the clear subtext is "A benevolent god as defined by those who believe in it". It's important to realise that a benevolent, omnipotent god doesn't make sense *as far as we can tell*. Sure you can propose the existence of something that cannot even in principle be understood - but what would be the point of that? Interesting when down the pub I suppose. Such things may or may not exist, but they are of no practical importance.

Comment author: TGGP4 04 December 2007 08:35:05PM 3 points [-]

ECL, I'm another emotivist/non-cognitivist but I'm puzzled by your reaction. Isn't Eliezer's preferences for other-regarding norms sufficient for him to praise them?

I'd also say attributing the proof of non-cognitivism to evolutionary psychology is a bit much. To me, Hume's is-ought is what does it. Evolutionary psychology indicates in general that we will believe kooky things, which might make for a more general solipsistic skepticism rather than mere ethical skepticism.

Comment author: Colin_Reid 04 December 2007 09:56:53PM 7 points [-]

I just discovered this blog today; looks thought-provoking.

Eliezer,

In theory, Christians can go one up on non-believers in the self-sacrificing stakes, which is to act in such a way as to condemn themselves to Hell, a fate which I would consider worse than non-existence. If they do it for the greater benefit of mankind this might be seen as a supreme act of virtue.

We then seem run into the question "Would a good God allow someone to go to Hell as a result of a supreme act of virtue?"

But that question is missing the point, unless we are trying imagine its manifestation and effect inside the mind of the would-be martyr. All that matters is that the would-be martyr *thinks* he is condemning himself to Hell, just as he thinks there will be beneficial consequences to others of his damnation. These beliefs could be right or wrong, but it would be unfair to judge virtue on the basis of knowledge. (We might judge it on the basis of rationality, but there might well be circumstances under which it is rational to believe in damnation resulting from a virtuous act.)

Satan as martyr is a well-explored theme, though you could say (depending on the story/interpretation) that Satan expects to benefit personally from his defiance of God, even if he knows he's going to be defeated (in the form of getting to rule Hell, retaining his free will and/or simply the warm fuzzy feeling of having done good), and has principally selfish motives, so diminishing the virtue. A more clear-cut fictional example of 'expected damnation arising from a virtuous act' is given in the film 'South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut', but I'm sure it's been done plenty of times before that.

Does anyone know of a real-life analogue of Kenny McCormick in this context? (Not in terms of whether they actually went to Hell, but in terms of what they thought the consequences of their actions would be, and the resulting choices they made.)

Comment author: thomblake 07 December 2011 10:42:46PM 0 points [-]

In theory, Christians can go one up on non-believers in the self-sacrificing stakes, which is to act in such a way as to condemn themselves to Hell, a fate which I would consider worse than non-existence. If they do it for the greater benefit of mankind this might be seen as a supreme act of virtue.

I'm surprised I didn't point this out years ago, but theologians tend to agree that any act condemning oneself to Hell is bad (amongst those who believe God does not simply have the only say in such matters).

A common explanation is something like, "If you are capable of that kind of goodness and self-sacrifice, then you are depriving goodness of a great ally by being condemned to hell".

Comment author: Dar_Veter 08 December 2011 01:19:08AM 4 points [-]

In theory, Christians can go one up on non-believers in the self-sacrificing stakes, which is to act in such a way as to condemn themselves to Hell, a fate which I would consider worse than non-existence. If they do it for the greater benefit of mankind this might be seen as a supreme act of virtue.

In theory, deed that would damn your soul is never a good deed, per definition.

Does anyone know of a real-life analogue of Kenny McCormick in this context? (Not in terms of whether they actually went to Hell, but in terms of what they thought the consequences of their actions would be, and the resulting choices they made.)

Ljubo Milos,Croatian war criminal, according to anecdote:

Dr. Maček was in custodio onesta and was interned for a while in Jasenovac. And when they become more familiar because they slept in the same room - Dr. Maček noticed that Miloš prayed every night before going to bed. Finally, he ventured the question, and he said, "How do you combine your Catholicism with the task you are performing in this camp?". "Don't ask me anything", replied Miloš. "I know that I'll burn in the hell - for everything I have done and for everything I'm going to do. But, I'll burn for Croatia."

Comment author: Caledonian2 05 December 2007 12:34:38AM 12 points [-]

A more clear-cut fictional example of 'expected damnation arising from a virtuous act'

See: Huckleberry Finn, in which the protagonist believes he'll go to Hell for helping a slave escape.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 05 December 2007 02:21:11AM 19 points [-]

In theory, Christians can go one up on non-believers in the self-sacrificing stakes, which is to act in such a way as to condemn themselves to Hell, a fate which I would consider worse than non-existence. If they do it for the greater benefit of mankind this might be seen as a supreme act of virtue.

You know, you're right. I suppose it's debatable that both a transhumanist sacrificing indefinitely large positive utilities of continued existence, and a religionist e.g. rescuing ten slaves at what they sincerely anticipate to be the price of eternal damnation, are both facing "indefinitely large" personal utility differentials. But it would certainly take more courage for a Christian to defy God and go to hell!

I don't know of a good real-world case, but it seems probable that at least once in history, someone did something they were sincerely convinced would condemn themselves to hell, to save the soul (not just life) of one or more people they loved more. If so, that says more about the human spirit than even John Perry's sacrifice.

Wow. Didn't think of that at all. Defying God for the sake of what you know deep down is right, has Gandhi beat cold.

Comment author: Nathan_Myers 05 December 2007 09:17:06AM 2 points [-]

Sorry, that's 1000 years before science. Cf. Ibn al Haytham.

Comment author: Ben_Jones 05 December 2007 05:31:05PM 1 point [-]

Is that vitriol I can smell? Tough to say. However, I definitely enjoyed this:

"There is only one superpower that exists in this universe, and those who seek to master it are called Bayesians."

I would *love* to read a thousand words on this Eliezer, and I say that with no hint of sarcasm or challenge. I understand Bayes, I'd just like to get my head around your "religion".

Regarding your most recent response above, Eliezer, I can assure you (as one who had his Catechism drummed in from an early age) that nothing so theoretically *interesting* could be allowed in Christianity. The virtue displayed by defying God's will to do what you know is, by God's own terms, the *right* thing would be tantamount to a one way ticket to heaven. If you refused to kill your firstborn, you wouldn't be smitten with a thunderbolt, you'd be told you had passed the test, and were truly worthy. This isn't an inconsistency in the nature of God, it's the nature of human-written scripture.

For the most part, the major religions had the obvious moral dilemmas tied up centuries ago. If they were anything but self-contained, they'd either have changed their dogma or been taken to bits by rationality. The only rational weapon we have against them is the fact that they are all almost certainly superstitious hogwash.

Comment author: taryneast 13 February 2011 10:55:25PM *  4 points [-]

I disagree. I think there are ways you could "defy God's will" by doing what could be considered a service to others... and not ever have a loophole to wiggle out of hell.

A good example might be a Christian choosing to shoot babies - so their souls could go straight to heaven while they were still "innocent"... It's plausible that a (rather twisted) christian could consider this a good thing for the souls of the babies, but I don't see any way that they would then get a one way ticket to heaven" out of it.

Comment author: Biophile 07 May 2013 01:48:42AM *  2 points [-]

If you refused to kill your firstborn, you wouldn't be smitten with a thunderbolt, you'd be told you had passed the test, and were truly worthy.

If this is so, then I have to question why Abraham got the same response for not refusing to kill the first child resulting from his marriage.

Comment author: Psy-Kosh 05 December 2007 07:02:59PM 2 points [-]

Eliezer, I dunno about Christianity, and it wouldn't, in this case, be eternal, but isn't there something about some Buddhists who've tried to get into/be reborn into some hell plane when they die to help those trapped there?

At least I seem to have this memory of reading stuff along those lines.

Also, actually, I know I've heard Jewish stories about various Rabbis supposedly making contracts and shuffling stuff around to give up their share in The-World-To-Come for the sake of another. Perhaps not identical, but the theme does show up here and there.

Comment author: Prakash 30 June 2008 01:32:00PM 5 points [-]

Hi Psy Kosh,

The souls you refer to in Buddhism are called Bodhisatvas. They are compassionate souls who instead of attaining Nirvana and ceasing their birth and death cycles choose to remain within those cycles to liberate others.

Comment author: Raw_Power 25 September 2010 01:02:21AM 19 points [-]

Back when I was a Muslim, in my final stage right before stumbling on this place, which was the final catalyst for me turning Atheist, I had decided to disregard Sharia and even direct Qranic law in every point in which it conflicted with my consciousness. My reasoning was that either God would understand that due to the social and intellectual progress since the times of Muhammad and would accept my behaviour as obeying the spirit of the Law rather than the dead letter, OR that he was more similar to that Jehovah prick than I thought, which meant I didn't care if such a despicable being would want to punish me eternally for this.

Of course, there isn't anything heroic about that. It would just have meant disobeying Him in fairly standard ways that are already practiced by most alledged Muslims, such as not flaying adulterers, not cutting thieves' hands, not forcing your wife to be an eternal minor under male tutelage, and so on. Except I had though about it and deliberately decided to violate God and the Prophet's commands, unlike what other people did, which was merely Not Thinking About It.

Then I read Religion's Claim To Be Non Disprovable among other things and thought: "If I'm going to favour my own principles AND empirical evidence OVER Word Of God, I might as well give up on religion entirely and save myslef much guilt and fear."

Comment author: AdeleneDawner 25 September 2010 03:26:06AM 11 points [-]

"If I'm going to favour my own principles AND empirical evidence OVER Word Of God, I might as well give up on religion entirely and save myslef much guilt and fear."

Drop the 'empirical evidence' bit and this is basically how I decided to leave Christianity: Some bits of advice in the bible are obviously wrong, and if I'm going to be using my own judgment to determine which of the questionable bits are right and which are wrong, I might as well just use my own judgment in general.

I suspect that this kind of reasoning might be more palatable to religious folks than the more common proofs that religion is wrong on matters of fact.

Comment author: Vladimir_M 25 September 2010 06:32:22AM 1 point [-]

That argument is applicable only to Protestants, though. As a Catholic, you have no business interpreting the Bible yourself. (And the same holds for the Orthodox too.)

Comment author: Raw_Power 25 September 2010 08:23:30PM 0 points [-]

The Bible might in fact contain a number of blatant scientific errors. That would be far more difficult to pull off with Muslims, since the Qran is far less error ridden (being incredibly ellyptic helps) and may in fact contain remarks that have turned out to be confirmed by Science, or so do most Muslims believe.

That and, well, God being alledgely omnipotent means he could have created the Universe five minutes ago, so the most you can say is that believing in Him and his Books is useless at best and misleading at worst.

Comment author: kodos96 25 September 2010 04:33:37AM 1 point [-]

OR that he was more similar to that Jehovah prick than I thought

Just curious - I was under the impression that Muslims considered their god to be the same entity as the Christian/Jewish god. Is that not the case?

Comment author: Raw_Power 25 September 2010 08:18:00PM *  8 points [-]

We (cultural Muslim, I am still quite fond of Muhammad and Islamic cultural heritage) basically treat the OT and NT as very rough outlines of what happened canonically, because we believe priests have been distorting everything to fit their current interests. It's tainted evidence, so to speak. So, while Allah (lit. "The [One] God") and Jehovah may be the same person, they do not share the same personality. Allah is characterized much more of a "stric, but fair God", and far less of a monster than Jehovah. He is also much more aloof, distant, and inhuman, almost an abstract concept rather than a "person". I refer you to wikipedia if you are really interesting to learn more: I have found there articles that were enlightening even to me, and there is much there that the average fundamentalist muslim is not aware of.

Sorry if I am being redundant, I just can't shake the feeling that my writing might have been a bit ambiguous in the original post: I must insist that all the corporeal punishing and the woman patronising are in fact NOT practiced by most Muslims, and the numbers of those who DO practice it are steadily diminishing as we speak. It's just that people refuse to think about it. I, on the other hand, was determined to be a true, honest Muslim, regardless of convenience or social convention, as well as a good man, and that truly tore my heart apart.

Comment author: Scottbert 09 July 2011 11:15:42PM 7 points [-]

So it's a year-old comment that finally gets me to say something here.

This is how I felt too -- I was raised Christian -- specifically Quaker, a branch of Christianity with a nonviolent bent and the belief that God could speak to anyone at anytime, not just to prophets.

Eventually I somehow formed the impression that God, if He were as kind and all-loving as I was told, would surely judge nonbelievers and believers in other faiths based on their actions. I don't know how heretical this would be -- it may have helped that our Quaker meeting was and is a rather laid-back place that seems willing to accept atheism and progressive things -- I once prepared to give a speech on why gay marriage should be allowed only to find everyone there was cool with it.

When I started to move towards agnosticism, I had the same thought: A kind god, if he really exists, as unlikely as any particular god seems, will understand and judge me by my actions. A cruel judgemental god might send me to hell, but I consider such a hypothetical figure's decisions not worth respecting, and within the probability-space of that god's existance, there is the chance that hell, run by a devil who rebelled against such a god, is full of cool people and not so bad. And if hell in such a world is eternal torture... well, then we live in a crapsack world and are powerless to do anything about it (looking back at these thoughts now, I wonder if life extension could be seen as giving the finger to a judgemental but non-interventionist god -- if you would have us go to hell, then we're staying here!). I rated the probability of that rather low, though.

Since then, my expected probability for any kind of god relatable to by humans has only dropped until I consider it more appropriate to say I am an atheist than an agnostic.

Comment author: Raw_Power 10 July 2011 12:02:35AM 1 point [-]

In retrospect, and given our belief franework at the time, that was pretty reckless. Suppose a Yahwé style God with a Muslim-style Hell (the Gospel doesn't develop the concept as much) was the actual God, and that we had incontrovertible evidence of it. Wouldn't humans forgive each other for obeying his cruel instructions, if it will save suffering for everyone involved in the long run?

Then again, htat hypothesis kind of screws with everything, since Belief and Faith are a prime part of classic!God's evaluation system.

The most likely explanation in retrospect is that on some level we already knew our worldview was worth crap, but were too afraid of the unknown that an actually Atheist viewpoint seemed to offer. Did you get it, that feeling of complete wasteland and desolation, that loneliness and cold, when you were having your first true battles with Doubt? Or did it feel different for you?

Comment author: UnclGhost 03 May 2011 11:57:16PM 9 points [-]

Maybe Superman doesn't risk much when he goes around being heroic, but it takes a certain strength of morality for Superman not to take over the world and use it to his own ends.

Comment author: Carwajalca 17 May 2011 01:46:49PM *  5 points [-]

John Perry was a New York City police officer who also happened to be an Extropian and transhumanist, which is how I come to know his name. John Perry was due to retire shortly and start his own law practice, when word came that a plane had slammed into the World Trade Center. He died when the north tower fell. I didn't know John Perry personally, so I cannot attest to this of direct knowledge; but very few Extropians believe in God, and I expect that Perry was likewise an atheist.

Don't know about the atheist part, but seems that the man was at least a cryonicist - found this on Alcor's webpage :

Two members of cryonics organizations were lost in the 2001 collapse of the World Trade Center towers. One was a policeman performing rescue operations.

Comment author: James_Miller 13 November 2011 10:59:54PM 1 point [-]

This is very important and the main article should be edited to include this information.

Comment author: TraderJoe 07 May 2012 11:34:43AM 1 point [-]

The John Perry link seems to have stopped working, which is a shame. I found his story impressive.

Comment author: Rixie 28 October 2012 07:58:38PM -1 points [-]

The whole point of it being Yeishu dying was because he was a perfectly not sinful God's son, and since he had superpowers people would actually take notice.

Comment author: Delta 22 November 2012 11:33:46AM 2 points [-]

I'd say the same applies to Catholics' aggrandisement of the Virgin Mary. Catholics are supposed to try to emulate someone whose virtue was so great before she was even conceived that she was born free from original sin (something no-one else can claim according to the appaling original sin doctrine). She then receives messages from god, bears his child (becoming both virgin and mother, a combination of virtuous states no-one else can achieve) and is bodily claimed into heaven. Isn't a human being who actually struggles with temptation, someone who overcomes actual weaknesses and flaws a better and more useful role model and example than this super-powered, divine intervention-fuelled juggernaut of unmatchable virtue? What can those seeking how to be good learn from someone to whom the mere notion of being bad is completely alien?

Comment author: Biophile 07 May 2013 02:50:24AM *  2 points [-]

As the Christians tell the story, Jesus Christ could walk on water, calm storms, drive out demons with a word. It must have made for a comfortable life: Starvation a problem? Xerox some bread. Don't like a tree? Curse it. Romans a problem? Sic your Dad on them.

In fairness to Christianity, I feel like I ought to point out that according to the Gospels, Jesus didn't use those powers to make his life more comfortable. Not only do we not see any instances of him doing this (at least, I don't recall any, and it doesn't fit with my understanding of the New Testament; if anyone does have a counterexample, then that would be welcome), the Temptations show him actively refusing to use his supernatural abilities for selfish purposes, even harmless ones like feeding himself. (To clarify, I don't believe he had any supernatural abilities to begin with, but I feel like it's worth mentioning).

Comment author: gwern 07 May 2013 03:05:56AM *  1 point [-]

the Temptations show him actively refusing to use his supernatural abilities for selfish purposes, even harmless ones like feeding himself.

How about harmful purposes, like cursing the fig tree?

Comment author: Biophile 08 May 2013 12:56:12AM 0 points [-]

According to that article, there seem to be two commonly used explanations for why he did that. One of them is that he was showing that he could, and the other is that he was warning his listeners to be like that tree. I'm definitely not the most qualified person to say which is right, but I would lean towards the second because in addition to it fitting better with the rest of what I remember the New Testament saying about him, he also apparently told a parable that was almost exactly the same and pretty much always interpreted interpreted that way, so he seemed to like that metaphor.

Comment author: gwern 08 May 2013 02:04:53AM 0 points [-]

The second one makes no sense: the cursed fig tree had no opportunity to 'repent' before being 'damned'.

Comment author: christopherj 07 December 2013 11:51:07PM 0 points [-]

My understanding is that a hero is 1) capable of great feats in a conflict and 2) not aligned with evil. Extreme moral virtue is neither a necessary, nor a sufficient attribute of a hero. You can be a heroic sniper, pilot, swordsman, etc with pure skill, though you can also be heroically courageous or loyal if circumstances allow you to demonstrate such.

Comment author: Colombi 20 February 2014 06:14:50AM 1 point [-]

I agree with your idea. It reminds me of your lecture in Stanford: all humans dying is bad because in effect we lose the entire known universe. Someone risking their only chance at sentient existence is much braver than someone who thinks they will live on in heaven. Very cool. Just told my friend and he agreed.