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The Amazing Virgin Pregnancy

21 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 24 December 2007 02:00PM

People who grow up believing certain things,
even if they later stop believing them,
may not quite realize how the beliefs sound to outsiders...

(SCENE:  A small cottage in Nazareth.)

Joseph:  Mary, my dearest fiancée, there's something I've been meaning to talk to you about.

(Mary's shoulders slump.  Slowly, as if under a heavy burden, she turns around to face Joseph.)

Joseph:  You seem to be getting fat around the waistline, and throwing up in the morning, and, er, not getting any periods.  Which is odd, because it's sort of like -

Mary:  Yes!  I'm pregnant!  All right?  I'm PREGNANT!

Joseph:  How is that possible?

(Mary's shoulders slump further.)  Mary:  How do you think?

Joseph:  I don't know, that's why I'm asking you.  I mean, you're still a virgin, right?

(Mary looks up cautiously, and sees Joseph's face looking blankly puzzled.)

Joseph:  Well?

Mary:  God did it.

Joseph:  You had sex with -

Mary:  No!  Haha.  Of course not.  I mean, God just snapped his fingers and did one of those miracle things and made me pregnant.

Joseph:  God made you pregnant.

Mary:  (Starts to sweat.)  Yes.

Joseph:  Mary, that is just so... completely...

(Mary's eyes squeeze shut.)

Joseph:  ...COOL!

(Mary opens her eyes again, cautiously.)

Mary:  You think so?

Joseph:  Of course!  Who wouldn't think so?  Come on, we've got to tell everyone the news!

Mary:  Maybe we should keep this between just the two of us -

Joseph:  No, no, silly girl, this is way too important!  Come on!

(Joseph grabs Mary's wrist and drags her out of the house. SCENE:  The gathering square of Nazareth.  A dozen well-dressed men, and the town's head rabbi, look on Joseph and Mary impatiently.)

Rabbi:  What's this all about, Joseph?  I trust there's a good reason for the fuss?

Joseph:  Go ahead, Mary!  Tell them what you told me.

Mary:  Um...  (She swallows.)  God made me pregnant.

Rabbi, looking stern, yet understanding:  Now, Joseph, you know you're not supposed to do that before -

Joseph:  No, no, you don't get it!  She's still a virgin!  God made her pregnant directly!

(There's a long pause.)

Man #1:  So, what you're saying here, basically, is that Mary tells you she's a virgin.

Joseph:  Uh huh!

Man #2:  And you haven't had sex with her.

Joseph:  Uh huh!

Man #3:  And now she's pregnant.

Joseph:  Precisely!

Man #4:  So you think that God did it.

Joseph:  What other explanation could there be?

Rabbi:  Joseph, that is just so... unbelievably...

(Mary holds her breath.)

Rabbi:  NEAT!

(Mary exhales.)

Man #5:  A miracle!  A miracle right here in Nazareth!

Man #6:  Wow!  I thought that miracles only happened in Jerusalem!

Man #7:  Come on!  Let's spread the good news!

(They depart.  SCENE:  Mary is alone with her friend, Betty, in Betty's house.)

Betty:  "God did it."

Mary:  I panicked!  It was all I could think of!

Betty:  So who's the real -

(Mary lifts an eyebrow significantly.  There's a brief pause.)

Betty:  Ah.  So that's why the rabbi went along with it.

Mary:  Well, he thinks he's the father, anyway.  Why, does it matter?

Betty:  It puts some things in a different light.

Mary:  Like what? 

Betty:  The rabbi has been telling all the pretty young girls that you, Mary, are the ultimate embodiment of feminine virtue, and when they grow up, they should be just like you -

Mary:  I just feel so awful about the whole mess.  What kind of thing is this to have hanging over my child's life?

Betty:  You've got to put things in perspective, dearie.  You told one little white lie.  It's not as if you caused the fall of the Roman Empire.

Mary:  But what if the Romans hear about it?  I don't want my baby to end up being crucified!

Betty:  No one's going to obsess about it that long.  In a couple of months this whole thing will blow over.

Mary:  I hope you're right...

(Exeunt Omnes.)

Comments (270)

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Comment author: RobinHanson 24 December 2007 02:18:40PM 34 points [-]

The crazier a thing you believe as a result of trusting your community, the stronger a tie to your community that shows. So when we signal loyalty via beliefs, those beliefs can get pretty crazy.

Comment author: Eric3 24 December 2007 03:19:57PM 1 point [-]

Very funny.

But even if god did get Mary pregnant, given my bayesian priors on seeing such miracles (I have seen none, nor do I know anyone who so it), I would have to be skeptical. Would it be too much to ask god to merely make one conspicuous miracle every generation or so, in a conspicuous place, so we could be sure? Then I would follow his rules more meticulously (eg, about not shaving, swearing).

Comment author: Richard_Hollerith2 24 December 2007 04:18:38PM 5 points [-]

I want to expand on Robin's comment. Some have hypothesized that promoting crazy beliefs helps a ruling coalition keep hold of power because the coalition's repressive efforts can be concentrated on the fraction of the population that shows signs of not believing the crazy beliefs. In other words, they can stay in power by cracking down on those who won't get with the program.

Comment author: billswift 24 December 2007 04:55:41PM 15 points [-]

Maybe it is "puerile", but it is also much more likely than the common belief.

Comment author: Raw_Power 26 December 2010 10:17:42PM 9 points [-]

In a relative sense, yes, but in an absolute sense, it's still more probable that the woman had a reputation for virtue, which actual virtue makes more likely. She didn't need to be a slut, the rabbi was more than sufficient, although it needen't be him, Josef himslef is even more likely. The "He think's he's the father" line was unnecessary.

Comment author: SkyDK 24 March 2012 02:19:09PM 0 points [-]

Not at all; discretion, social manipulation and control should do the trick. Powerful alliances would be better as well.

Why? Well; sinful behaviour+ discretion+ political capital has a higher probability of leading to a good reputation than good behaviour and bad political standing.

Comment author: Kip 24 December 2007 04:59:14PM 0 points [-]

LOL

Comment author: Recovering_irrationalist 24 December 2007 05:07:21PM 26 points [-]

Eliezer: Hindsight bias? No crazier to believe at the time than many truths.

Hey Betty, your disease was given to you by countless little flying monsters, as many as the sands in the desert, but no one can see them. And they make babies by tearing themselves in half. Most of your ancestors were like that.

Comment author: LemmusLemmus 24 December 2007 05:36:11PM 0 points [-]

"Maybe it is "puerile", but it is also much more likely than the common belief."

I agree it is more likely and that "virgin birth" is a silly belief, but that's not the point. Elizer comes across like a fifteen-year-old who has just discovered the joys of provocation.

Comment author: Doug_S. 24 December 2007 05:50:23PM 6 points [-]

The books composing the New Testament were written many years after the events they describe, so the whole "virgin birth" story may have been made up long after Joseph and Mary were no longer around to contradict it.

Comment author: ScentOfViolets 24 December 2007 06:07:13PM 2 points [-]

This may be the stuff of urban legend, but . . . wasn't this just an issue of mistranslation? I had heard that the Hebrew word (or whatever the extant language was) for 'young woman' or 'young bride' had picked up some virginal baggage before making it into the Canon. Is there any basis to this version of events?

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 24 December 2007 07:06:34PM 29 points [-]

ScentOfViolets: Yes, the Greeks mistranslated "young woman" to "virgin" in the Septuagint. Standard story.

LemmusLemmus: I was never a Christian, so I don't bear the same deep abiding grudge that I do against Judaism for alienating my family from me.

But why should I be more fond of religion than of any other massively self-destructive folly?

And if you're shocked by my blaspheming the Virgin Mary, you may have some traces of reverence left that you need to get rid of. I mean seriously, think about the storyline here. Alleged virgin. Pregnant. "God did it."

The way this post got started was that I was talking to a friend recently who had been exposed to an attempted conversion by Scientology, and he was shaking his head in wonder. And then he said, "I don't understand how Scientology converts anyone, it's so ridiculous. At least the Christian religion has a powerful story. You can see how people would be converted by that."

I said to him, "I don't see that one story is any less ridiculous than the other. You're an atheist now, but you were raised as a Christian, right? You grew up being told about Christian beliefs, but not Scientologist beliefs. You may not realize how the Christian story sounds if you're not raised thinking it's normal. I mean, consider the Virgin Mary -"

Comment author: ScentOfViolets 24 December 2007 07:38:06PM 1 point [-]

Thank you - that's exactly what I've heard, but I didn't want to get lost in quibbling over the details. Since we are in agreement then, why post this story? Given the existence of Jesus (one can argue persuasively that there is not sufficient historical evidence that such a creature ever existed), this story would never have happened, would have been, well, silly. If it's about the priors of committed Christians, it doesn't work - a god that can create an entire universe in seven days just to lavish attention and affection upon the peoples of a certain small globe certainly wouldn't cavil at a virgin birth.

Comment author: Caledonian2 24 December 2007 08:24:13PM 6 points [-]

a god that can create an entire universe in seven days just to lavish attention and affection upon the peoples of a certain small globe certainly wouldn't cavil at revealing his existence to a heretical farmer through golden plates that require a magical gem to translate

Fixed that for you.

Surely, the repentant Xenu - who ordered the genocide of countless billions of intelligent beings - could, if he chose, decide to reveal the true nature of their sufferings to the denizens of the planet Earth through the writings of a science-fiction author of questionable talent. And clearly the unbelievable nature of his claims only lend them greater authority, because who would ever make up something so ridiculous in an effort to get people to believe?

Comment author: Ben_Jones 24 December 2007 08:29:54PM 3 points [-]

I'm looking forward to part II, set in the year 28, in which the rabbi comes forward to the Nazareth Tablet claiming that he, not God, is actually the father of our Lord and Saviour, resulting in a prolonged war of words and claims in the media. Mary will finally win out by signing a 5m dinarii deal to write her memoirs (entitled 'Virgin: My Story').

Happy Bayesmas everyone! Have a rational, thoughtful, productive, faith-free nonspecific secular midwinter festival!

Comment author: Anna4 24 December 2007 08:34:05PM 7 points [-]

Eliezer, The claim isn't that you should not hate religion. The claim is that sociologically, this post is a bit like giving the Hated Enemy a kick in the pants. The point in it is fairly obvious (though, as people point out with the chronology, possibly historically false). People who already want to laugh at religion get to go "har-har", and people who for whatever reason want to not laugh at religion get to feel alienated from whatever it is you're up to here.

It is one of those posts that makes me wonder more acutely what you are up to here. Some months ago I found your writings on the singularity, seriously considered giving the SIAI money, and instead spent a great chunk of time trying to launch a disaster-averting effort of my own. I am still devoting most of my divert-able time toward launching that project because I still think (partly on the basis of your arguments) that reducing existential risks is the most important thing most of us can accomplish. Do you? Is this blog a way to recharge so you can return to the work at hand? Are posts like this somehow part of the research you are doing on Friendliness? Is explaining to people how Christianity could look foolish (via posts like this, which aren't even especially well done or anything) a separate good as worthy of your time as whatever work it displaces? Am I missing a possibility here?

Comment author: poke 24 December 2007 09:25:33PM 6 points [-]

Sometimes puerile humor serves a purpose. Some people, apparently, still need to be shocked out of their deference for tradition.

Comment author: briarandbramble 24 December 2007 09:38:01PM 0 points [-]

I feel like Anna. I don't understand what this post accomplishes, and I would like answers to the questions Anna asks.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 24 December 2007 10:13:00PM 15 points [-]

Well, let's see. First, while a mere kick in the pants is not funny, there's a long and extremely respectable tradition of satire that happens to involve a kick in the pants. "The Virgin Mary is a slut, haha" wouldn't be funny.

If you're asking what the higher purpose of this post is, it's right up at the top: If you grow up believing something, or even if the people around you seem to think it's "normal", then you may not notice the inherent absurdities in it. How many people hear the story of the Virgin Mary? How many see the humor in it, even after they become atheists? This is a kind of sleep, and one of the ways you wake up is by noticing that the people around you, and even yourself, are selectively overlooking flaws that would be obvious if the beliefs were only believed by one person.

"Mere messiahs" is along the same line. The point of "Mere messiahs" is not to attack Christianity, because superhero comics have the same problem. If only a single person had walked right up to you and said, "Here's this Superman guy - I really admire him!" and no one else had ever heard of Superman before, then you might be more likely to scrutinize for flaws, and say, "Wait a minute, how does this Superman guy reveal more virtue than a police officer who isn't bulletproof?"

You have to get used to checking all these casually, socially accepted beliefs and moralities for these hidden little gotchas. The point is to wake up and start checking social beliefs for flaws, just as if you had only heard them from one person. To this end, any bit of absurdity you can find is helpful. It gets you into the habit.

Comment author: cerebus2 24 December 2007 10:49:33PM 2 points [-]

I doubt this is one of those posts that takes 8 hours, and it is the holidays!

People not raised deeply in religion (like, say, the Orthodox Jewish community), and who didn't have to wait 'till they were in their 20s to 'come out' as atheist, probably don't appreciate the level of militancy folk like Eliezer display. I'm 2nd generation, and despite my militant materialism, I don't share my (Catholic) parents level of hostility to religion. YMMV.

Anyway, here's some festive viewing for y'all.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 24 December 2007 11:50:49PM 18 points [-]

People not raised deeply in religion (like, say, the Orthodox Jewish community), and who didn't have to wait 'till they were in their 20s to 'come out' as atheist, probably don't appreciate the level of militancy folk like Eliezer display.

Correct. If you were raised in a family of gentle and convenient religion, and you don't like having militant adult atheists running around, then outlaw serious religious impositions on children under 18 (study of Torah for half of each school day, fasting without food or water for 25 hours while walking a couple of miles to synagogue). Maybe then you'll see less bitterness from the adults! D'you think?

Wouldn't support such a law? Neither would I. But bear in mind: Not everyone has a childhood that makes "religion" a cute little teddy bear.

Religion is this cute voluntary thing, with no harmful side effects, that only Scrooge would attack? How strange that anyone would hold a grudge? A bizarre public belief, which everyone repeats, but which is right up there with the Virgin Mary for inherent absurdity. If just one person came to you and said such a thing, you would laugh at them...

This post did start out as just for fun. Sometimes I can feel the world trying to strip me of my sense of humor.

Comment author: FeepingCreature 09 September 2010 07:50:41PM *  7 points [-]

Just for what it's worth as a very belated reply - I was raised in a family of gentle and convenient religion, and would strongly support such a law, as well as outlawing advertisement targeted at children.

Comment author: Raw_Power 26 December 2010 11:03:23PM 4 points [-]

Y'know what? Children shouldn't be baptized. None of that "confirmation" nonsense. You get to decide once you're in your twenties.

Comment author: CronoDAS 26 December 2010 11:12:35PM 7 points [-]

There are some Christian denominations that agree with that.

Comment author: Psy-Kosh 25 December 2007 12:23:31AM 8 points [-]

Eh, coming from a modern orthodox background but with "gentle and convinient" modifications here and there, that's not all fun and games too.

"Okay... so you're saying that being overly fanatic, absolutely strict in absolute observance of the Torah is a bad thing? But you're saying you believe the Torah is the absolute one true word of God, who must always be obeyed... But, rejecting this other stuff here is fanatical and over the top? uh....."

"Okay, so you're saying times were different then... so you're saying you don't believe the notion that the Torah is eternal and unchanging? er.. the question isn't if you agree with me or not, the question is if you even agree with yourself?"

(Though at the same time, they'll laugh at the joke: "The difference between a fanatic and a goy? Anyone a drop more frum than me is a fanatic, and anyone a drop less is a goy.")

Suffice it to say that in many ways my brain still feels scrambled sometimes. :) (I took the scenic route to rationality, including such things as interest in the occult, and for a while having convinced myself that the biblical flood happened..... on mars. As I said, extremely scenic route...)

Hrm.. I wonder how tied this is to procrastination... I think I ended up procrastinating fully accepting the rational consequences of, well, accepting that rationality is a Good Idea(tm). :)

Comment author: Raw_Power 26 December 2010 11:23:02PM *  37 points [-]

Here is my ranking of religious people, in lessening order of how irritating I find them:

  • Fundies that don't try to make sense, have an inconsisten set of beliefs, which ends up boilng down to societal rules that are abhorrent to the Liberal Social Democrat Humanist. They will behead you if you meet a certain number of more-or-less reasonable criteria. They will not feel sorry about it.

  • Moderates that don't try to make sense, , have an inconsisten set of beliefs, which ends up boilng down to societal rules that are pleasant to the Liberal Social Democrat Humanist. They will not behead you, ever. They might feel guilty about not doing it.

  • Fundies that do try to make sense, have a mostly consistent and sensible set of beliefs, which is based on the literal revealed text, understood as well as possible, using the original language, with all the modern tools of hermeneutics and linguistics, who don't care about any sensibilieties, modern or traditional, only about those of their chosen Prophet(s). They will behead you if you meet a certain number of clearly established, sensible, consistent criteria that are applied at all times to everyone. They may or may not feel sorry about it, and they may or may not try to apply as much clemency as the rules allow them.

Yup. The last ones, I can tolerate best. It takes a lot of courage, and a lot of fortitude, as well as other "virtues", to be a true, honest follower of your own religion. It requires a lot of selflessness, and a lot of sacrifice. I had been trying to be one ever since I was a child. And all I found around me were people in the first and second category. There were exceptional, modern Muslim reformists like that Tarik Ramadan (of whom I still think eh is a pretty cool guy, as fundies go), who tried to give Muslims who had a mind towards modernity and competitiveness and consistency and justice an acceptable workframe to do that within Islam. But then I stumbled upon this place and found out that the thing I was striving for, consistency, is unattainable in religion.

In other words, all those people are wasting their time.

You could say I took a sort-of scenic route to rationality, by wanting to be a real Muslim, one that did everything the Qran and Muhammad would want him to do (including figuring out what exactly they'd want me to do), consistently and coherently. Islam makes it more difficult to do than Christianity and Judaism because it is almost bare, pure Theism, and until I read Relgion's Claim to be Non-Disprovable, I thought the system was still salvageable. Well, so much for all that time wasted to angst. (Now instead I waste time ranting...)

Comment author: orthonormal 26 December 2010 11:40:01PM 0 points [-]

Formatting note: You're missing a space between the asterisk at the beginning of a paragraph, and the letter following it.

Comment author: Raw_Power 28 December 2010 12:35:49AM 1 point [-]

Frankly, I expected to be downvoted to hell for this... Why did the opposite happen I wonder?

Comment author: Will_Sawin 28 December 2010 02:54:54AM 10 points [-]

Hypothesis: People agree.

Comment author: DSimon 28 December 2010 03:36:37PM *  9 points [-]

Alternate hypothesis (of which I am a single data point): People think it was a well-written, interesting comment, despite disagreeing with its conclusion on several points.

Comment author: Raw_Power 31 December 2010 05:48:18PM 2 points [-]

Either way, Ureshi!

Comment author: Costanza 28 December 2010 01:14:35AM *  4 points [-]

I take it Bart Ehrman followed a similar path...learning Greek in order to learn New Testament "scripture"...only to find out that nobody knows for sure what the "original" really was.

This is a common problem for all the Abrahamic scripture-based religions, whether they admit it or not (they mostly don't.) It's really, really hard -- I would say impossible -- to prove that variations or changes have not been introduced since the time of a hypothetical original text, copied from handwriting scribe to handwriting scribe. And the harder, fundamentalist versions of the Abrahamic religions always ascribe HUGE importance to the integrity and wonderfulness of the text.

Comment author: TobyBartels 30 December 2010 07:57:49AM 1 point [-]

This is why some fundies interpret their scripture to say that God will magically make it such that whatever text they happen to have on hand is the right text! Example.

Logically, this is as circular as the people who interpret their scripture to say that the scripture is inerrant, but of course it's good enough for them.

Comment author: JohnH 29 April 2011 04:51:29AM -3 points [-]

And the harder, fundamentalist versions of the Abrahamic religions always ascribe HUGE importance to the integrity and wonderfulness of the text.

If one considers the LDS to be of the Abrahamic religions and to be fundamentalist then we have an answer to this being "We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly".

Comment author: wedrifid 29 April 2011 04:52:40AM 0 points [-]

"We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly"

What's your position with respect to dashing babies against the rocks?

Comment author: JohnH 29 April 2011 05:59:09AM -3 points [-]

The dashing of babies against rocks is generally to be avoided. Vengeance is the Lord's and He will repay so, unless that verse is saying that whoever ended up destroying Babylon was a psychopath, it is most likely not scriptural in nature.

Perhaps you would like to ask your real question now?

Comment author: wedrifid 29 April 2011 06:07:49AM 2 points [-]

Perhaps you would like to ask your real question now?

That was my real question. Although I suppose you could generalise it to "Do you even believe all the parts that sound terrible are the word of God? Or are those parts 'translated incorrectly'?"

Because God and his angels are not very nice. In fact the angels made excellent adversaries in the Supernatural series - because they based them roughly on the biblical versions not the cultural versions.

Comment author: JohnH 29 April 2011 06:35:10AM -3 points [-]

"Do you even believe all the parts that sound terrible are the word of God?

If this was the question then you chose a poor place to attack. You should have gone with something in Genesis, Exodus, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, or Chronicles.

For instance, to answer a common objection on this site, the passover. The passover isn't something that can be brushed off as not being meant to be real as it is fundamental to the Jews and for the Christians is a sign of Christ. It also involves killing of babies.

To understand how the passover was moral it is needed to establish a few things: First, God works according to laws so while he (possibly?) could teleport people out of Egypt that would violate the agency (or free will as it is called) of everyone involved.

Second, Everyone that is under the age of 8 is not accountable for their sins.

Third, God is a utilitarian with our eternal happiness as His primary goal. Our current discomfort if it leads to our eventual modifying of our actions or desires to match what will ultimately bring us the most happiness is acceptable to Him. This can be seen in such things as the Atonement.

So God was not only attempting to get his people free but to also provide an experience that the Jews would remember through all generations. Also he was trying to convince the Egyptians that their gods were not gods.

So everyone that he killed that was younger than 8 was automatically saved. Death happens to everyone so when we die isn't terribly important to God, our eternal happiness is his goal.

So if one was a member of the group that was killed by God that was over 8 then one would have some decent evidence that the Egyptian gods were not able to provide salvation and that possibly the Jewish God could, this would hopefully cause them to convert to following God. If one was an Egyptian that was not killed by God but saw that all the first born were killed then this would provide strong evidence that the Egyptian gods were not gods and that the Jewish one was, so when one died one would be more willing to accept God. If one was Jewish then one would have strong evidence that God was indeed God and hopefully be less likely to stop following God.

Hopefully you can see how from Gods perspective the passover was overall a worthwhile investment. The Jews commemorate the event to this day so they clearly haven't forgotten, which was one of the goals of God.

There may be more to the calculus of the passover from Gods perspective, not being God I can't say I have covered everything. If one wishes to know more then one is always free to ask God about the subject.

Comment author: wedrifid 29 April 2011 06:43:40AM *  1 point [-]

If this was the question then you chose a poor place to attack.

No, my original question was my question and made for the sake of personal interest and amusement.

Second, Everyone that is under the age of 8 is not accountable for their sins.

I know, that's why I make sure to kill everyone I meet at the age of seven years and six months. It's to save their eternal souls! Bite those bullets!

Comment author: wedrifid 29 April 2011 06:08:48AM 1 point [-]

to prove that variations or changes have not been introduced since the time of a hypothetical original text, copied from handwriting scribe to handwriting scribe.

And rocks. Don't forget the bit with the rocks.

Comment author: TeMPOraL 12 January 2014 04:52:34AM *  0 points [-]

It's really, really hard -- I would say impossible -- to prove that variations or changes have not been introduced since the time of a hypothetical original text, copied from handwriting scribe to handwriting scribe.

It might be hard or even borderline impossible, but I do respect people who honestly try. I know for instance, that Jehovah's Witnesses did a lot of work in cross-corelating as many different copies of the scriptures as they could get their hands on to weed out mistranslations, copy errors, etc. when developing their own translation. So for whatever it's worth, it's nice that some people at least try.

Comment author: DSimon 28 December 2010 03:49:00PM *  2 points [-]

Agreed that consistency is very important. However, I think that your #3ers, even though they correctly push their system very hard, are actually behaving in a very irrational way.

Being willing to let inconsistencies slide (as the #1ers and #2ers do) violates the important rationalist rule of noticing when you are (or ought to be) confused. However, it's a much less dangerous response than chasing down confusion but refusing to let the results adjust your moment-to-moment world model! In other words, #3ers are only doing the first half of a scientific or mathematical process, which eliminates most of the benefit, but still is enough to give them a false sense of confidence in their own assertions.

The "fuzzy" thinkers, #1 and #2, are just sitting back and letting society guide them along the path of least resistance, often acknowledging (particularly in the case of #2ers) that they have only minimal confidence in their own knowledge. That's not particularly rational, but it at least isn't actively pushing things in a bad direction.

I guess to put it another way: not all changes make things worse, but anything that makes things worse must be a change. The volume of choice-space that makes the world a crappier place is much smaller than the volume that makes things better. Because of that, overconfidence can be much worse than underconfidence, though both are bad.

Comment author: Gray_Area 25 December 2007 12:26:57AM 0 points [-]

"Sometimes I can feel the world trying to strip me of my sense of humor."

If you are trying to be funny, the customer is always right, I am afraid. The post wasn't productive, in my opinion, and I have no emotional stake in Christianity at all (not born, not raised, not currently).

Comment author: Lida 25 December 2007 01:17:45AM 0 points [-]

What makes Elizer so sure Mary wasn't a slut?

Comment author: Sam3 25 December 2007 02:49:19AM 0 points [-]

Anna, if you're still reading this thread, do you have a blog? I read some of your comment on earlier religion posts and was intrigued by your point of view.

Comment author: Al_T 25 December 2007 03:27:57AM 1 point [-]

Of course the story above is not at all the story that Christian's tell. But yes, if someone believed in a virgin birth after hearing the above story they would be crazy.

Merry Christmas!

Comment author: Carl_Shulman 25 December 2007 03:33:19AM 2 points [-]

James,

There are a variety of possible scenarios under which absurdly vast positive and negative utility could be generated, e.g. strange laws of physics. If a scenario for vast utility or disutility appears internally inconsistent and strongly disconfirmed by empirical evidence, as with Christianity, it can easily be dominated by the possibility that we will discover exotic physics enabling the generation of vast positive utility. Then, if promoting more rational thought and action enhances our likelihood of achieving such an outcome (e.g. by creating superintelligence that shares our values) this benefit can outweigh religious concerns.

Further, the egoist 'Hell' version of Pascal's wager might be bypassed by committing to acquiring vast computational resources and simulating vast numbers of copies of your life experiences. The resulting dilution of 'Hellworlds' would vastly reduce the expectation that any particular being with your current experiences will experience vast torment.

Comment author: Tiiba2 25 December 2007 04:04:43AM 5 points [-]

Am I the first to laugh at Eliezer's scenario?

It's very simple: Mary was much more likely to be a liar than a virgin mother. This is true even if you assume that there are virgin mothers who are their own granny.

And the point is even simpler: don't ignore the outlandishness of a claim just because everyone believes it.

(But I would also not advise you to judge a claim according to an unbeliever's caricature. Make sure it's not a strawman.)

Comment author: James_D._Miller 25 December 2007 04:10:32AM 0 points [-]

Carl,

Are you sure the dilution of Hellworlds would work if, given that you do something today that causes you to be damned, all future copies you make of yourself will spend eternity in Hell?

Comment author: Caledonian2 25 December 2007 04:28:06AM 0 points [-]

This is especially true since so many people believe that she was and by your own beliefs you must give this some weight.

Except that no sane person, Eliezer possibly included, believes this.

Comment author: Robert3 25 December 2007 04:41:02AM 2 points [-]

"Sometimes I can feel the world trying to strip me of my sense of humor."

Don't worry Eliezer, I found it funny even if others didn't! =D Merry Christmas from a fellow non-believer.

Comment author: Sean3 25 December 2007 05:40:35AM 0 points [-]

Maybe I'm mistaken, but I think this is a pretty good example of how easily people get hung up on a false dichotomy.

Comment author: TGGP4 25 December 2007 06:43:43AM 1 point [-]

I'm trying to remember where I read the theory that the original Jamesian Christians (really a sect of judaism) didn't believe in the virgin-birth but that it was later added in to appeal to pagan/Hellenistic cult-followers who had plenty of stories of miraculous children-of-gods.

Comment author: Jey_Kottalam2 25 December 2007 06:44:08AM 6 points [-]

It's interesting that everyone gets into a tizzy whenever someone looks at religion and just tells it like it is, but the same doesn't happen with any other subject. We have some strange reverence for religion that we just don't have when it comes to something like economic models. The fact that everyone is so incredibly offended by religious beliefs being criticized doesn't justify avoiding the topic; we don't need to keep our mouths shut just because someone might irrationally be offended by frank and honest commentary. I don't think that any economist is going to tell you to stop criticizing his favorite economic model just because it "offends" him, at worst he's going to tell you that you're an idiot, and maybe even explain why in detail. But for some reason we as a society afford a kind of sacred protection to religion and tell each other not to even consider criticizing religion because it might hurt someone's feelings.

On the other hand, there's an entirely practical set of reasons to not come right out with the criticism. I fully think that religions should be subject to the same level of frank discussion, analysis, and criticism as any other set of beliefs or opinions, but it may be more practical to soften the message in today's social climate. It doesn't matter whether or not what you're saying is actually offensive, what matters is avoiding the perception of vitriol if you want to get through to people who are easily offended. As it stands, posts like this just preach to the choir and piss off everyone else. Once the reader/listener has a negative emotional reaction you're not going to be able to communicate your message to them, they're just going to block it off and not even digest what you're saying.

Anyway, this post is meant to preach to the choir; the point is to show us choir members that we don't recognize the absurdity of religious myths even if we do recognize them as myths. It's supposed to show that we still treat absurd religious myths as reasonable things to believe in -- that we fall into the trap of protecting religion out of "respect" as I described above. The comments above show that it didn't work 100%. ;-)

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 26 December 2010 11:20:45PM 7 points [-]

It's interesting that everyone gets into a tizzy whenever someone looks at religion and just tells it like it is, but the same doesn't happen with any other subject.

I think you could get similar results for insisting that nations are just something people made up and should be judged on utilitarian grounds.

Comment author: RichardKennaway 27 December 2010 11:57:24AM *  6 points [-]

It's interesting that everyone gets into a tizzy whenever someone looks at religion and just tells it like it is, but the same doesn't happen with any other subject.

Larry Summers, Julian Assange, Stephen McIntyre, and Bruce Charlton might disagree, unless you redefine "religion" to mean all the things that people get into a tizzy about in preference to discussing the evidence. (As some would.)

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 27 December 2010 01:05:45PM 5 points [-]

You can add Jocelyn Elders to your list, and matters relating to sex and young people generally.

Thanks for the Charlton reference-- I'd never heard of him, but he seems somewhat sensible about depression.

Comment author: katydee 27 December 2010 02:57:56PM *  1 point [-]

Julian Assange doesn't tell it like it is, though the point in general stands.

Comment author: RichardKennaway 27 December 2010 03:09:46PM 2 points [-]

Julian Assange doesn't tell it like it is, though the point in general stands.

Do you mean that you disagree with what he says about the value of transparency in government, or that he disagrees with what he says?

In listing those four people I did not intend to imply that the things that these people have famously said are all true, only that all of them would see themselves as telling it like it is -- that is, expressing what they judge to be true, in spite of pressures to the contrary. And they are doing so in various areas other than religion.

Nobody has a hot line to The Truth. Everyone who is not lying believes they are telling the truth, whether what they are saying is true or not.

Comment author: shokwave 27 December 2010 04:07:27PM 1 point [-]

Unsure of your point. Unless you are talking about his public statements (I will grant you that), Assange provides factual documents created by the organisation in question. These are records of corruption or abuse. This is about as 'telling it as it is' as you can get, unless you mean the semantic difference between "Assange tells it like it is" and "Assange leaks documents that record companies telling it like it is".

Comment author: katydee 28 December 2010 12:57:45AM *  1 point [-]

Well, just look at the "collateral murder" case. The official government story there was actually closer to the truth than the WikiLeaks version-- WikiLeaks provided more information, yes, but they did so in a skewed/biased way that actually acted to obscure the truth.

Comment author: shokwave 28 December 2010 05:28:40AM 0 points [-]

IIRC they released a video from an American helictoper, calling it "collateral murder". The video showed a bunch of people, some with guns, milling about in the street. The gunners misidentify the journalists' cameras as weapons. They open fire on the group, then later open fire on a van that attempts to pick up one of the badly wounded men.

The official government story was that American troops were hit by small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades, called in reinforcements and attack helicopters, and in the ensuing fight 9 insurgents and 2 journalists were killed. “There is no question that coalition forces were clearly engaged in combat operations against a hostile force,” from Lt. Col. Scott Bleichwehl.

Were these the official government story and the WikiLeaks version you were familiar with? Because by any reasonable definition of 'truth', the government's version is factually wrong and obscures the entire situation, whereas the WikiLeaks version is factually correct and obscures nothing, excepting its use of the word murder.

Comment author: katydee 28 December 2010 03:18:03PM 1 point [-]

Yes.

The fact that the journalists' cameras were misidentified as weapons is a red herring, because they were still with a group of people armed with assault rifles and at least one rocket launcher, and engaging the group was justified. WikiLeaks focuses on the single (irrelevant) misidentification and also frames the engagement as "murder," neglecting to point out the weapons that the others were carrying.

In my view, the government version is not factually wrong-- nine insurgents and two journalists were killed, after all, and the other engagements mentioned were not shown in that video-- and the WikiLeaks version is. If that means I have an unreasonable definition of 'truth,' so be it, but the case seems fairly clear to me.

Comment author: Carl_Shulman 25 December 2007 07:54:28AM 0 points [-]

James,

Basement-level universes with Christian gods are much less probable than a chance at vast computing power through exotic physics. Christian gods must split their computational power across large numbers of beings, while my future selves in universes with vast resources could focus a large fraction of their capabilities on simulating their pasts.

Comment author: LemmusLemmus 25 December 2007 10:10:42AM 0 points [-]

Elizer,

you are misreading me.

I did not argue that belief in virgin birth (which many, possibly most, Christians do not believe in anyway) is unridiculous. It is ridiculous. I explicitly called it "silly".

But the post did not just argue that Mary's pregnancy came about in the normal way, you had to suggest that she had had sex with multiple men - a behaviour which most Christians would feel is deeply wrong.

The post is not meant to educate, it is meant to offend.

And that is both unhelpful and puerile.

Comment author: Leif 25 December 2007 10:21:00AM 0 points [-]

Devil's advocate (literally) on xmas day, here we go:

Premise 1: The Bible contains some useful guidelines regarding interpersonal ethics. Premise 2: SOME people may not adhere to such guidelines absent metaphysical threats (e.g. damnation) or a public shaming (for going against doctrine).

In other words, I'm not convinced that widespread indoctrination MUST always yield worse results (in terms of the ethical behaviors within a group) than a widespread 'understanding' that all people are to think for themselves.

Say we come up with a (more or less comprehensive, easily interpretable) list of ethical guidelines that must be respected to maintain a stable, basically peaceful culture. Can we expect everyone to understand the reasoning behind the list, to comprehend how it functions to maintain prosperity? That neglecting it is actually perilous, in the long run (i.e. can they see past the immediate payoff of defection)? I don't know for sure, but I tend to think that such philosophy eludes Joe Everydude. In that case, is it still a mistake to propagate some crazy, blatantly false beliefs if it helps to maintain a baseline ethical, umm, equilibrium?

Incidentally, I'm not saying that this is how Christianity functions; most of it lost sight of the proverbial forest long ago. I AM saying that I don't see an argument against mind control via cults for those who would eschew ethics, in the absence of any indoctrination programme. Is it possible that vanilla-flavored justice isn't enough to deter some people?

Comment author: Ben_Jones 25 December 2007 10:32:30AM 2 points [-]

Everyone,

Get over yourselves. It's Christmas! If you're offended by the post, you're seeking to take offence.

I like the reference to 'coming out as an atheist'. I had to wait to leave my little town for university before I threw off the Catholic mantle, but I know deep inside that the inherent sense of guilt they spend all their time fostering will be with me for a long time. Inherent Guilt Bias - deconstruct that one.

Comment author: Alan3 25 December 2007 11:09:28AM 2 points [-]

How is a post like this any more offensive than a person trying to convince you that the virgin birth is actually a fact?

Comment author: Alan3 25 December 2007 11:10:12AM 0 points [-]

How is a post like this any more offensive than a person trying to convince you that the virgin birth is actually a fact?

Comment author: LemmusLemmus 25 December 2007 11:53:40AM 1 point [-]

"How is a post like this any more offensive than a person trying to convince you that the virgin birth is actually a fact?"

I, for one, never said so. But I hold some people to higher standards than others. Call it a bias if you like.

Comment author: James_Blair 25 December 2007 01:30:43PM 1 point [-]

The post is not meant to educate, it is meant to offend.

It wasn't meant to educate as it's filed under humour (or a word spelled somewhat similarly). Don't forget--especially during the festive season--the possibility of alternate explanations, you might not share his sense of humour?

Comment author: steven 25 December 2007 01:45:57PM 1 point [-]

James D. Miller:

In the extremely unlikely case that the whole Christianity thing is true, there may be 10^30+ future souls at stake depending on the combined decisions of at most 10^10 people; from an expected utility point of view those should dominate all decisions, unless you think you're forced by rationality to consider your own afterlife more important than that of (say) a billion billion others.

Comment author: Caledonian2 25 December 2007 02:57:19PM 4 points [-]

The post is not meant to educate, it is meant to offend.

Sometimes being offended is a necessary part of one's education.

Comment author: Q_the_Enchanter 25 December 2007 05:26:55PM 11 points [-]

Right. It's one thing to send up the inanity of the Jesus myth. But it's quite another to cast Mary as sexually liberated. Eliezer, how dare you!

Comment author: Nastunya 25 December 2007 06:20:22PM 1 point [-]

There's nothing offensive about the post. I just wish it were funnier and less predictable. I'm with LemmusLemmus on this: it's too bad that the fifteen-year-old's tone of provocative discovery ends up distracting from Eliezer's obviously valid point -- that, yes, the story of the virgin birth is pretty wacky as stories go.

Comment author: J_Thomas 25 December 2007 06:33:19PM 0 points [-]

I didn't think it was tremendously funny. But I thought it was funny enough to recite the whole thing to my wife while she sat at her own keyboard, instead of just send her a link. She didn't think it was tremendously funny. But she politely stopped typing to listen, and she laughed some.

It seems to me like at least a B effort. The humor was in everybody wanting to believe.

In reality, wasn't there a claim that the midwife confirmed Mary was a virgin? If I lived in the village I'd probably accept that as sufficient evidence, though in my namesake's tradition I'd rather stick my own fingers in to confirm it.

For myself it's pretty much irrelevant. There was an ecumenical joke when I was a kid -- a preacher compared the different protestant faiths as being like different roads that could be taken to get your cotton to a cotton gin. And when you get there, the engineer isn't going to ask you "Which road did you take?" He's going to ask you, "How good is your cotton?".

By the same reasoning, when Jesus comes to me with a morality for me to follow, I don't ask him "What miracles did you have about your birth?". I ask him, "How good is your morality?".

Comment author: Chris 25 December 2007 06:34:41PM 0 points [-]

There's a lot of confusion here. 1) Don't confuse respect for religion (unreasonable) with respect for people who have deep religious beliefs, however daft. In some abuse of religion I sense a lot of contempt for religious people. I try to fight my contemptuous side, knowing how strong it is. 2) Don't confuse 'the harm done by religion' with harm done by people, who would have done it anyway , who find in religion a convenient cloak. 3) This is not the place for a post on the human need for religion or the rag-bag of needs it subsumes (social, political, historical, personal identity definition, ethical, the love of the marvellous, transcendental etc.). However, I strongly suspect that some of those same needs might not be a million miles away from the motivations that attach people so strongly to the aims of a certain Institute..... Saul/Paul was not the first nor the last human to have radically changed his beliefs while maintaining the underlying personality structure which drove him to give himself so totally to the first set, then to the second. And to found his own personal religion, but that's another story.

Comment author: Caledonian2 25 December 2007 07:05:00PM 1 point [-]

with respect for people who have deep religious beliefs, however daft.

Why should we respect people who have daft beliefs?

Comment author: g 25 December 2007 07:35:00PM 3 points [-]

Jey, I think the dichotomy between religious and other beliefs (in how much offence disagreement causes) isn't so stark as it's sometimes painted. Random example: US politics; how would a staunch Reaganite Republican react to the suggestion that Reagan's policies were all deliberately designed simply to funnel money to his big-business pals? For that matter, how do biologists generally react when creationists accuse them (in effect) of a gigantic conspiracy to suppress the truth? I think there's at least some offence taken in both cases, and those accusations (rather than mere disagreement) seem to me to be parallel to Eliezer's story.

Caledonian, we should respect people who have daft beliefs for the same reason(s) as we respect other people for. Someone who views people as mere repositories of beliefs, and doles out respect solely on that basis, should not respect people whose beliefs are, on balance, daft. I don't think that's how most people operate. And having some daft beliefs isn't the same as having daft-on-balance beliefs.

Eliezer, I think you improved the story when you softened the suggestion of extreme promiscuity on Mary's part. The bit about crucifixion is (to my taste) an unsuccessful flourish, not least because (apologies for literal-mindedness here) the Romans would not have crucified someone for having his mother claim he was conceived by direct divine intervention. But having the friend be called Betty *is* a nice touch. (Wasn't she supposed to be a relation, not just a friend?)

Comment author: 25 December 2007 07:37:00PM 6 points [-]

"There's a lot of confusion here."

Yes, and I'd say the biggest confusion is construing Mary's promiscuity as an accidental, gratuitous part of the joke. The whole point of the joke is that such promiscuity would be the first, most natural inference to draw were a self-proclaimed virgin to tell us that she'd been made pregnant by God.

Comment author: Unknown3 25 December 2007 07:38:00PM 1 point [-]

Caledonian, one reason to do that is that everyone has daft beliefs once in a while. It isn't surprising that you ask the question, however, since you show no respect for those with whom you disagree on Overcoming Bias. Since you disagree with them, you presumably think that their beliefs are false, and consequently (according to your logic) that they themselves are unworthy of respect.

Comment author: Q_the_Enchanter 25 December 2007 07:38:00PM 0 points [-]

Sorry, that last comment was mine; didn't want to leave it unsigned.

Comment author: Nigel_Mellish 25 December 2007 09:19:00PM 0 points [-]

"Sometimes I can feel the world trying to strip me of my sense of humor."

That might be one way to look at it. Another is that the prior information you have about your sense of humor isn't as informative as you think it is - :)

Comment author: Joseph_Hertzlinger 25 December 2007 09:35:00PM 0 points [-]

One way to look at the Christmas story is to compare it to another story (Easter) in the same religion. The Easter story looks coherent even when the serial numbers are filed off. The experiment was done by C. S. Lewis, who was able to write a coherent story (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe) that included a disguised version of the Easter story. As far as I know, that hasn't been done for Christmas. This makes the Christmas story look less coherent.

Comment author: Michael_M._Butler 25 December 2007 09:49:00PM 0 points [-]

[[
Rabbi: Joseph, that is just so... unbelievably...

(Mary holds her breath.)

Rabbi: NEAT!
]]

You know, Eliezer, sometimes that's the way things like the Friendly AI effort (and Alcor, and a few other things) strike me.

I want to believe.

Does that make me as gullible as Joseph, or as opportunistic as the Rabbi?

Too soon to tell.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 25 December 2007 10:01:00PM 1 point [-]

You know, Eliezer, sometimes that's the way things like the Friendly AI effort (and Alcor, and a few other things) strike me.

I want to believe.

Does that make me as gullible as Joseph, or as opportunistic as the Rabbi?

As gullible as Joseph, unless you profit by it somehow, in which case you would be as opportunistic as the Rabbi.

But there are much nicer things to believe in than Friendly AI or Alcor. Why not believe you'll go to heaven regardless, and trump mere FAI and mere cryonics combined, so long as you're believing things you want to believe?

Comment author: g 26 December 2007 12:38:00AM 1 point [-]

Joseph, I think the externals of the Christmas and Easter stories (virgin birth arranged by God; agony, death, resurrection, again arranged by God) are pretty much equally coherent. (Coherence isn't their problem.) But the point of each story, for Christians, is something much harder to swallow: Christmas is supposed to be about the Incarnation (with Jesus somehow being entirely human, just as much as we are, and entirely God, etc.) and Easter about the Atonement (where the whole death-and-resurrection thing somehow enables God to forgive the sins of humanity when he couldn't before). Both seem pretty incoherent to me.

They both make good stories, if you don't think too hard about how they're supposed to work. I'm not sure that has much to do with their coherence. (Take a look at the "explanation" in TLTWATW for the Easter-like event. Lewis isn't even trying to deal with the really doubtfully-coherent bits, but he still resorts to entirely arbitrary stuff about Deep Magic and Deeper Magic.)

It's quite well established that stories tend to feel more plausible if they include a wealth of details, even though the presence of those details actually makes the story less probable. (It's more likely that you'll be abducted by aliens than that you'll be abducted by aliens so that they can perform weird sexual experiments on you.) So I'd be very hesitant about taking the fact that a story can be told satisfyingly as a sign that it's less improbable, or more coherent, than a story that can't be told so satisfyingly.

Comment author: Caledonian2 26 December 2007 02:34:00AM 0 points [-]

Caledonian, one reason to do that is that everyone has daft beliefs once in a while.

That is not a valid reason to reject the idea that daft beliefs are just cause to hold someone in disrespect.

Is that actually the best you can manage?

Comment author: Kyle4 26 December 2007 03:00:00AM 0 points [-]

You are aware that this line of thought is about 1950 years old, right? The story that Jesus was the bastard son of somebody has been around for about as long as the line that he was born of a virgin. It's always sounded absurd, which is why it has always been the first thing Christian apologists have had to defend, after the resurrection.

It was a mildly amusing variation, but I think it still falls in the category of Godzilla and a house. It was probably funny in the 2nd century, but it's gotten pretty lame by now.

Comment author: eric2 26 December 2007 03:04:00AM 0 points [-]

In the spirit, from Life of Brian:

"Oh, it's blessed are the MEEK! Oh, I'm glad they're getting something, they have a hell of a time. "

Comment author: Michael_M._Butler 26 December 2007 04:07:00AM 3 points [-]

Why not believe you'll go to heaven regardless, and trump mere FAI and mere cryonics combined, so long as you're believing things you want to believe?

Because then I won't get to go to Dresden Codak's Secular Heaven. It's a Catch-22.

Comment author: K._Larson 26 December 2007 04:20:00AM 3 points [-]

Eliezer, I'd like to refer you to your post on awful political art. What purpose does the above sketch serve? Is this is a new argument why the orthodox religious christological position is invalid? Are you expressing a newly adopted belief? Do you believe that your readership hasn't considered the possibility that the virgin birth might have been a sham? Or are you just slugging The Enemy good and hard and laughing about it? How is this different than an atheist adaptation of a hymn? It introduces no new information and serves only to delineate the boundaries of your belief group (is it Blue, Eliezer, or Green?) and the scorn that you bear for those who do cheer for your side.

Check of proof: would this have any value AT ALL if "Joseph" and "Mary" were swapped out for "Mike" and "Helen" and "Rabbi" were changed to "Mayor Wilkins" and "God" to "Elvis"?

Go ahead, paste into Word and replace the names. If you so much as chuckle, you are easily amused indeed. Awful Political Art. For Shame, Eliezer.

Comment author: Unknown3 26 December 2007 05:08:00AM 0 points [-]

Caledonian, if you add the premise that some people should be respected, it is a logically valid and necessary conclusion (given that all people at some point have daft beliefs) that not all people who hold daft beliefs should be disrespected.

However, that is certainly not the best I can do. I could think of a long list of reasons for respecting such people: much the same reasons why you would do much better to show some respect for the authors and readers of Overcoming Bias. For one thing, you would have a much better chance of persuading them of your position, and if your position is true, then this is a very good effect. For another, everyone (even people holding daft beliefs) also knows some things that other people don't know, so if your respect is based on knowledge (as you seem to imply) then everyone should be respected. One last obvious point: most people will not respect someone who does not respect them: this is why you are not respected by those in this forum. But perhaps you enjoy this anyway?

Comment author: g 26 December 2007 12:16:00PM 0 points [-]

K Larson, I think Eliezer was wrong about bad political jokes, for two reasons. Firstly, a joke depends on its context, and it may not be possible to depoliticize a joke without losing something essential in the context. Secondly, like it or not, most of us do find it funny to see a disliked powerful figure get their comeuppance, which means that when assessing how good a joke is it's an error to penalize it for getting some of its laughs that way.

(But he was right when he said that finding what would otherwise be a bad joke funny is evidence that its target is playing the Hated Enemy role for you. Eliezer has been quite open about the fact that he greatly dislikes religion.)

And, for what it's worth, I think Eliezer's little drama does introduce one idea that not everyone's thought of (I don't claim that it's new, but novelty as such isn't all that valuable): that preservation of self-esteem might be an element in why the virgin-birth story succeeded. For what it's worth, though, I think it much more likely to have arisen some time after the events themselves than to have been made up on the spot.)

Comment author: Caledonian2 26 December 2007 02:05:00PM 0 points [-]

Caledonian, if you add the premise that some people should be respected, it is a logically valid and necessary conclusion (given that all people at some point have daft beliefs) that not all people who hold daft beliefs should be disrespected.

No, it doesn't. You're ignoring the possibility that respect can (and should!) vary across time. What if the "some people" who should be respected is the set of people who aren't holding daft beliefs?

More importantly, your belief that everyone holds daft beliefs at some point is daft.

You should be more careful about making assumptions.

Comment author: J_Thomas2 26 December 2007 02:41:00PM 2 points [-]

"Check of proof: would this have any value AT ALL if "Joseph" and "Mary" were swapped out for "Mike" and "Helen" and "Rabbi" were changed to "Mayor Wilkins" and "God" to "Elvis"?"

K Larson, I tried that and I found it *much more* funny that way.

However, I couldn't help but think about Jesus while I was reading the story, and that probably had something to do with it. I'm afraid it turns into an even more effective political joke against Jesus when it's Mike and Mayor Wilkins, the absurdity shines through even more obviously. And from a christian perspective it isn't quite as pointed because it's obviously stupid for these people to think they have Jesus reborn. "Who do you think you are, Jesus Christ?" Although yet again, aren't we due for something like that right around now?

So the story becomes much richer and more ambiguous with the different names. At first sight it may be an obvious anti-christian joke and then it deserves some thought. And if Jesus did come back would he destroy the American empire? Would he be declared incompetent and sedated?

Comment author: Kenny 21 January 2013 09:22:16PM 0 points [-]
Comment author: Unknown3 26 December 2007 02:46:00PM 0 points [-]

Caledonian, can you give an example of someone who has never held a daft belief?

Other than yourself, of course, since such a suggestion would seem to indicate bias. On the other hand, your disrespect towards all others with whom you disagree (which seems to be everyone on some topic or other) seems to suggest that you believe that they all hold daft beliefs.

Comment author: Conny 26 December 2007 04:21:00PM 1 point [-]

That story made my day. So ... Monty Pythonesque. Being a child of former of East Germany I experienced myself how ridiculous such stories sound if you were not raised to believe them.

Comment author: Nastunya 26 December 2007 04:28:00PM 0 points [-]

Caledonian doesn't want to say he's never met a person who had not at some time held a daft belief. I'll venture further on his behalf: he most likely respects some of the people who occasionally hold these daft beliefs, if, on balance, their beliefs end up being good ones and if these people have mechanisms in place to weed out the bad beliefs.

If that's so, then his position is actually quite sensible: it rewards good beliefs, holds people to high standards, and it expresses optimism about possibility of change in those committed to and skilled at it.

Comment author: Jay4 26 December 2007 08:12:00PM 0 points [-]

A most amusing take on the issue! And yes, all of these tales (or myths, really) sound rather weird to outsiders. If having that pointed out stings, maybe it is the lesson you needed today.

Comment author: Caledonian2 26 December 2007 08:39:00PM 0 points [-]

Caledonian, can you give an example of someone who has never held a daft belief?

You've misunderstood the issue. When I find that someone holds a ridiculous belief, I lose whatever respect I might have had for that person. When they reject the belief, I respect their integrity and desire for truth.

No one who, for example, insists that the Earth is hollow and contains Saucer Men which come out and abduct people for sexual experiments, given the existing evidence, is worthy of respect. They are in fact worthy of disrespect, and a great deal of it.

A person who comes to recognize that such a belief is not only incorrect but deeply stupid is worthy of a great deal of respect.

Comment author: Alan_Crowe 28 December 2007 09:57:00PM 2 points [-]

Perhaps this post needs to be rehosted at http://www.sufferingfrombias.com for it gives no suggestion or hypothesis about overcoming bias. Here are three.

ONE: Friendships with people from different cultures helps one to realise that stuff one was brought up to accept sounds deeply weird to those who first encounter it as adults.

TWO: There are tells: little warning glitches. The trouble is that from the inside the tell doesn't make sense, but human memory depends on embedding items in networks of meaning, so the tells will not embed and get forgotten. An example from my personal life is reading about the recent shooting spree in Finland that left eight dead. On comment on this was that it was a big shock because the standard Finish murder involves a man going on a fishing trip with his best friend, knifing him during a drunken row, and, overcome by remorse, turning himself in.

I found the standard Finish murder incomprehensible. I could never imagine doing anything like that. Recently I've come to realise that I'm the odd one out. Perhaps I have an attachment disorder. I'm terrified of rows with friends because I see relationships as fragile, easily destroyed by a petty quarrel, and the breaking of affectional bonds as unbearably painful. (Notice that my beliefs are internally inconsistant: if breaking affectional bonds is as painful as I fear, my friends are clearly not going to inflict that pain on themselves by dropping me over a petty quarrel. Whoops!)

Here is the general interest bit: rows within marriages, love affairs, and close friendships, are a well known phenomenon (is this the understatement of the month?). So I've spent 30 years noticing this and forgetting it without realising the implications, noticing and forgetting, noticing and forgetting, over and over, without ever holding it in my awareness for long enough to say "Hey! Wait a minute..."

Suggestion two is to keep a little black book of the stuff that keeps getting dropped on the floor. So it one was brought up a Christian one might notice when a daughter or fiancee unexpectly falls pregnant this never raised hopes of a second coming or a new relevation. After a while one realises that one never follows this thought anywhere, even though there is something odd about it. Into the black book it goes.

Later you can look through the book and start trying to worry out what is so slippery about the thought. Write down the stuff that doesn't make sense so that it has a chance against the much more easy to remember stuff that fits into your world view.

THREE: Fine distinctions of sarcasm. When one of one's favorite views is attacked by a sarcastic comment it sometimes irritates and it sometimes stings.

Sometimes the humour depends on an oversimplification. Perhaps the humour priviledges the ex post perspective over the ex ante perspecitive. This irritates because the attack is short and funny and the repost is long and dull, and yet ex post is not inherently better than ex ante, the argument is being decided by structural matters independent of the merits of the case.

Othertimes the humour lies in the fact that the sarcasm cuts through the bullshit and the defense mechanisms and pierces to the heart of the matter. This stings. The only defence is to remember all the worthless sarcasm that depends on distortion and irritates rather than stings and to pretend that this sting is also an irritation.

Comment author: jurisnaturalist 01 January 2008 07:52:00AM 1 point [-]

I don’t know if any other Christians read this site, but I found the drama compelling enough to share it on mine, with this preamble: “Christians ought to fully recognize the absurdity of their claims. We ought not to expect any understanding or concession from unbelievers. The claims of our creed are completely outside the experience of natural man. Christiandom we are not. The Kingdom of God we are. We ought not to place any expectations on the world except that they will laugh at us, scorn us, and persecute us, just as they did Christ. There’s nothing worse than a crybaby, whining, bratty Christian.”

Your point was spot-on. Those Christians who want special concessions from the state are as opposed to the claims of Christ as they are to liberty. John Howard Yoder, Stanley Hauerwas, Bonhoeffer, and the folks over at Jesus Manifesto recognize the distinction, and make it the cornerstone of their position. Christianity calls for the adoption of a peculiar ethic which mandates full and exclusive responsibility for caring for the least of these to be accepted by its followers. It fully renounces manipulation of the political mechanism, and requires sacrificial altruism towards all others. It claims this altruism is made possible through an alteration of human nature.

Atheist libertarians ought to welcome Christians as the solution for caring for the poor. Instead of “to heck with the poor,” they can now say, “well the Christians say they want to care for the poor, so let ‘em have ‘em.”

Comment author: TobyBartels 28 December 2010 01:55:12AM *  1 point [-]

Atheist libertarians ought to welcome Christians as the solution for caring for the poor. Instead of "to heck with the poor," they can now say, "well the Christians say they want to care for the poor, so let 'em have 'em."

That's about what Ayn Rand did say. (Edit: Actually, it was Objectivist spokesperson Barbara Branden.)

I'm an atheist libertarian who does care for the poor, so I don't actually need you. (I welcome you all the same, of course!)

Comment author: Alexei_Turchin 29 January 2008 12:36:00PM -1 points [-]

I think people would find it more apropriate if you tell about any your own bias that you have until e.g. 15 years old, and then debiased yourself, and tell people around you that they are wrong and that they believe in stupid thing.

Comment author: Kevin8 02 March 2008 10:48:00AM 0 points [-]

Great little scene - I wish I'd had the script during drama at school.

Comment author: TobyBartels 18 August 2010 09:03:02PM 8 points [-]

An excellent little story!

Two nitpicks: The rabbi should say ‘AWESOME!’, not ‘NEAT!’. (It has appropriate religous tones, while the modern connotations fit the spirt of your text.) Also, Betty should be Mary's cousin, not just her friend. (That's the traditional Catholic position, although Luke 1:36 is not clear.)

Comment author: Carinthium 23 November 2010 07:20:47AM -2 points [-]

1- To be fair, some... features might look different if Mary hadn't actually been penetrated. 2- Historically, I'm not sure if the concept of the white lie as a formal concept had been invented then. If it had been, it almost certainly wasn't called that. 3- Betty wasn't a Jewish name.

Comment author: orthonormal 26 December 2010 11:43:56PM *  6 points [-]

3- Betty wasn't a Jewish name.

You missed the joke.

Comment author: wedrifid 27 December 2010 05:23:22AM 2 points [-]

1- To be fair, some... features might look different if Mary hadn't actually been penetrated.

That's a good point. If it was not Joseph who knocked her up you would expect he would ask for some evidence of that kind. Even though the test of virginity he had available is vulnerable to some false negatives it is the best he had.

Comment author: christopherj 06 December 2013 11:05:05PM 0 points [-]

Though it is quite common for the hymen test for virginity to give false negatives, I've also heard that it could give false positives. Maybe Joseph did check! There was also a much more interesting test that Joseph could have done.

Comment author: [deleted] 19 November 2011 08:11:55PM 1 point [-]

If it had been, it almost certainly wasn't called that.

It's not like she was speaking English anyway, so if you're using a translation you could as well use an idiomatic one.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 26 December 2010 11:44:11PM 2 points [-]

Well, I thought it was fairly funny for the most part, but it wasn't my personal toes getting stepped on.

One Eliezerish aspect which I don't think was mentioned in the comments is the serious possible effects of what seem like small lies.

The rabbi was one of the funniest bits, but he's also terrifying if you think about him seriously-- he's able to con the vast majority of people he talks to, and he takes serious risks with their lives.

I think the usual reaction to that sort of story is to think that the people who were conned were fools, but there are always going to be people who are more convincing than most, and people with above average gullibility-- it's worth it to have a society where the gullible aren't taken advantage of just as it's worth it to have a society where the physically weak aren't automatic victims.

Comment author: KND 08 August 2011 03:40:23AM 1 point [-]

I wasnt aware that they had rabbis before Rome expelled the Jews. i thought that was a development designed to help cope with the Diaspora.