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

Rationality Quotes Thread September 2015

3 Post author: elharo 02 September 2015 09:25AM

Another month, another rationality quotes thread. The rules are:

  • Please post all quotes separately, so that they can be upvoted or downvoted separately. (If they are strongly related, reply to your own comments. If strongly ordered, then go ahead and post them together.)
  • Do not quote yourself.
  • Do not quote from Less Wrong itself, HPMoR, Eliezer Yudkowsky, or Robin Hanson. If you'd like to revive an old quote from one of those sources, please do so here.
  • No more than 5 quotes per person per monthly thread, please.
  • Provide sufficient information (URL, title, date, page number, etc.) to enable a reader to find the place where you read the quote, or its original source if available. Do not quote with only a name.

Comments (482)

Comment author: elharo 02 September 2015 09:51:20AM 12 points [-]

Our ideal in crafting an argument is a skeptical but friendly audience, suitable to the context. A skeptical audience is questioning of our observations, not swayed by emotional appeals, but not so skeptical as to be dismissive. The ideal audience is curious; humble, but not stupid. It is an idealized version of ourselves at our best,

Max Shron, Thinking with Data, O'Reily 2014

Comment author: Lumifer 16 September 2015 03:29:51PM 9 points [-]

What I’m objecting to here is the idea—encouraged, I fear, by lots and lots of statistics textbooks, including my own, that you can routinely learn eternal truths about human nature via these little tabletop experiments.

Andrew Gelman, The aching desire for regular scientific breakthroughs

Comment author: dspeyer 02 September 2015 04:07:24PM 22 points [-]

I consider that I understand an equation when I can predict the properties of its solutions, without actually solving it.

-- Paul Dirac

Comment author: Zubon 03 September 2015 03:13:55AM 7 points [-]

As a rule, news is a distraction from worthy intellectual pursuits.

-- Bryan Caplan, expanded here

Comment author: 27chaos 20 September 2015 05:01:41PM *  6 points [-]

I believe in articulate discussion (in monologue or dialogue) of how one solves problems, of why one goofed that one, of what gaps or deformations exist in one's knowledge and of what could be done about it. I shall defend this belief against two quite distinct objections. One objection says: "it's impossible to verbalize; problems are solved by intuitive acts of insight and these cannot be articulated." The other objection says: "it's bad to verbalize; remember the centipede who was paralyzed when the toad asked which leg came after which."

J.S. Bruner tells us (in his book Towards a Theory of Instruction) that he finds words and diagrams "impotent" in getting a child to ride a bicycle. But while his evidence shows (at best) that some words and diagrams are impotent, he suggests the conclusion that all words and diagrams are impotent. The interesting conjecture is this: the impotence of words and diagrams used by Bruner is explicable by Bruner's cultual origins; the vocabulary and conceptual framework of classical psychology is simply inadequate for the description of such dynamic processes as riding a bicycle. To push the rhetoric further, I suspect that if Bruner tried to write a program to make an IBM 360 drive a radio controlled motorcycle, he would have to conclude (for the sake of consistency) that the order code of the 360 was impotent for this task. Now, in our laboratory we have studied how people balance bicycles and more complicated devices such as unicycles and circus balls. There is nothing complex or mysterious or undescribable about these processes. We can describe them in a non-impotent way provided that a suitable descriptive system has been set up in advance. Key components of the descriptive system rest on concepts like: the idea of a "first order" or "linear" theory in which control variables can be assumed to act independently; or the idea of feedback.

A fundamental problem for the theory of mathematical education is to identify and name the concepts needed to enable the beginner to discuss in mathematical thinking in a clear articulate way.

-- Seymour Papert, distinguished mathematician, educator, computer scientist, and AI researcher, in his 1971 essay "Teaching Children to be Mathematicians vs. Teaching about Mathematics".

Comment author: elharo 02 September 2015 10:00:52AM *  18 points [-]

if we want economics to be a science, we have to recognize that it is not ok for macroeconomists to hole up in separate camps, one that supports its version of the geocentric model of the solar system and another that supports the heliocentric model. As scientists, we have to hold ourselves to a standard that requires us to reach a consensus about which model is right, and then to move on to other questions.

The alternative to science is academic politics, where persistent disagreement is encouraged as a way to create distinctive sub-group identities.

--Paul Romer, NYU, "My Paper “Mathiness in the Theory of Economic Growth

Comment author: James_Miller 02 September 2015 04:47:22PM 6 points [-]

What if everyone knows that all the models are flawed, but the geocentric model makes the best predictions in one sub-domain, and the heliocentric model in another?

Comment author: dspeyer 02 September 2015 05:40:55PM 12 points [-]

Then the most important question for any model would be what domains it's good at.

For example: one model approximates the population as infinite, so it gets decent predictions when the number of agents in each category exceeds five (this is rare).

These requirements to apply the model should be the first thing taught about the model.

Comment author: Good_Burning_Plastic 03 September 2015 10:38:12AM 4 points [-]

Well, if you replace "geocentric model" and "heliocentric model" with "general relativity" and "quantum field theory" that's pretty much the situation that obtains in present-day theoretical physics.

Comment author: elharo 04 September 2015 10:14:20AM 0 points [-]

In physics general relativity and quantum field theory are applied to different domains and at least one, possibly both, are widely recognized as mere approximations to the ultimate theory that subsumes them.

I'll defer to Dr. Miller on this if he cares to weigh in, or any other professional economist, but my outsider's impression is that in economics as discussed by Romer the situation is more that contradictory theories are being applied to the same domain, without a serious effort to determine experimentally which (if either) is correct.

Comment author: IlyaShpitser 07 September 2015 08:33:39PM *  1 point [-]

Hanson once said that testablity is not a useful notion in the social sciences. That seems kind of crazy to me, but I am not an economist.

Comment author: [deleted] 07 September 2015 08:11:54PM *  0 points [-]

I'll defer to Dr. Miller on this if he cares to weigh in, or any other professional economist, but my outsider's impression is that in economics as discussed by Romer the situation is more that contradictory theories are being applied to the same domain, without a serious effort to determine experimentally which (if either) is correct.

Sometimes, yes. And at least one school loudly insists that they don't need no stinkin' experimental evidence, because they're actually doing a deductive formal science. In a sign of uncertain health for economics, they are considered heterodox, but not yet laughed out of polite academia.

Comment author: Lumifer 02 September 2015 04:56:09PM 1 point [-]

makes the best predictions

Does it actually? Economists rarely make unhedged predictions and then rigorously test how did they turn out.

Finance, though, is a sub-field that provides one with rapid and unambiguous feedback most of the time :-)

Comment author: gjm 09 September 2015 12:11:52PM 1 point [-]

Rapid, yes, but extremely noisy. If you make some decision and lose a ton of money, that doesn't mean it was a bad decision; maybe you just got unlucky.

Comment author: Lumifer 09 September 2015 04:38:00PM 1 point [-]

but extremely noisy

No, not usually, at least for common to me values of "extremely" :-) Finance does not require you to select high-variance bets :-)

If you make some decision and lose a ton of money, that doesn't mean it was a bad decision; maybe you just got unlucky.

True, but if your actual outcomes are "extremely noisy" you need better risk management which happens to be part of finance.

Comment author: gjm 09 September 2015 07:35:54PM 1 point [-]

What's noisy is the information you get rapidly, not necessarily the outcomes. If you (stupidly, of course) buy and short-sell the same amount of some asset, your outcome is noiseless but the information you get from watching what actually happens to the asset is still noisy.

Comment author: Lumifer 09 September 2015 07:40:59PM 0 points [-]

What's noisy is the information you get rapidly

Doesn't that entirely depend on what kind of information you are interested in?

Comment author: gjm 09 September 2015 07:47:16PM 0 points [-]

Sure. If, for instance, you decide that the information you want to get from watching your investments is the value of pi, then provided you compute it in the right way (e.g., by ignoring your investments and summing a rapidly convergent series) it won't be noisy at all.

I assume you mean something distinctly less trivial than that, but I'm not sure what. I'd have thought that in a typical case the feedback you're seeking is something like "is this trading strategy I'm using a good one?" Meaning: "if I continue to use it, will I make money?". I have never worked at an investment bank or hedge fund, but my impression is that usually it takes some time before the answer to that question becomes clear, if it ever does. (The fact that the market is changing beneath your feet as you observe it doesn't make that any easier, of course.)

Comment author: Lumifer 09 September 2015 07:56:34PM *  0 points [-]

I'd have thought that in a typical case the feedback you're seeking is something like "is this trading strategy I'm using a good one?"

Yes, that's a fair example.

my impression is that usually it takes some time before the answer to that question becomes clear, if it ever does

Nope, people who can't figure out the answer to this question fairly quickly go out of business on about the same time scale :-)

How quickly actually depends on the trading strategy. One of the big advantages of high-frequency trading, for example, is that the trader will know there is something wrong with the strategy in a matter of hours. He may fine-tune it for months, but whether it works or not is clear very quickly. On the other end of the spectrum are long-term illiquid investments like private equity. In those cases it can, indeed, take years before you know whether your choices were good ones.

I would say that typically a few weeks to a couple of months of losses (or a few months of neither making nor losing money) is enough to subject a trading strategy to scrutiny.

Comment author: gjm 09 September 2015 09:33:15PM 0 points [-]

Aha. I think our actual misunderstanding was about what counts as "rapid" feedback; I had in mind a shorter timescale than you did.

Comment author: [deleted] 07 September 2015 08:14:38PM 1 point [-]

Finance, though, is a sub-field that provides one with rapid and unambiguous feedback most of the time :-)

It's also a field in which one can get "positive feedback" (ie: make a profit) by taking completely randomized actions and then just waiting for the world to reward you anyway. Most available studies show that most professional money-managers don't beat the market most of the time. On the whole, making money off macroeconomic growth doesn't yield scientific bona-fides.

Comment author: Lumifer 08 September 2015 12:58:58AM 1 point [-]

one can get "positive feedback" (ie: make a profit) by taking completely randomized actions and then just waiting for the world to reward you anyway.

Heh. Why don't you go try it? Sounds like free money X-/

Besides, aren't you confusing finance and marketing?

Comment author: [deleted] 08 September 2015 12:41:50PM 0 points [-]

Heh. Why don't you go try it? Sounds like free money X-/

Do you not have savings at all, or did you actually just say you've put no portion of your savings in market-tracking index funds?

Comment author: Vaniver 08 September 2015 01:37:05PM 1 point [-]

Market-tracking index funds are decidedly non-random. Lumifer's point is that you're confusing the professional money-manager's ability to make money off people who don't want to manage their own money (i.e. marketing) with the professional money-manager's ability to make money off picking individual stocks (i.e. finance), which on average does not exist. The money-management field does not represent 'free money' in that you need to actively market for clients, and there is not free money to be had in doing mediocre money management with your own money.

The point that you were trying to make, that there's money to made simply by having capital and investing it in the entire economy as a whole, doesn't seem like a knock-down objection to Lumifer's point; by watching how my index fund holdings are doing, I am getting rapid and unambiguous feedback about how the overall economy is doing relative to various segments or other holdings.

Comment author: Lumifer 08 September 2015 04:23:36PM 0 points [-]

did you actually just say

Did I actually say? Quote me.

Let me also point out three different things and note that they are different.

Thing one is financial services. They are services -- they provide you with something in exchange for some sort of a fee. For example, providing an index-tracking mutual fund is a service. If you want to use this service, you pay for it and if the service is sufficiently popular, the provider makes a profit. This is not different in principle from buying the services of, say, a gardener or a car mechanic. Of course, some providers make inflated claims about their services, but that's hardly limited to finance.

Thing two is investment/trading where you are trying to, basically, extract (more) money out of a market.

Thing three is putting capital to work which, strictly speaking, doesn't even require markets. If you have some value and you put that value to productive use, you can expect (subject to a large number of caveats) to get some profit. This is not even finance, but basic economics.

Note that in none of these cases anyone is "taking completely randomized actions" or is guaranteed a profit.

Comment author: Daniel_Burfoot 26 September 2015 10:14:55PM *  2 points [-]

Romer goes on to write:

Persistent disagreement is a sign that some of the participants in a discussion are not committed to the norms of science.

He should reread Kuhn. Kuhn says that the cause of persistent disagreement is usually the lack of a relevant and workable scientific paradigm which can identify important problems, resolve disputes, and thereby mandate researchers to come to consensus. Romer's use of the phrase "the norms of science" indicates that he believes in a singular, universal, monolithic set of principles which is valid for all types of scientific inquiry. But economists obviously cannot use the same principles as physicists, simply because they cannot run experiments. What Romer is really complaining about is that there is no good paradigm for economics, but that's not anyone's fault - the discovery and articulation of a paradigm is as difficult as doing the science that the paradigm supports. A more valid criticism of the field would be "We are trying to do science without a strong enough paradigm, and the weakness of the paradigm is preventing us from resolving our disagreements definitively. Instead of trying to do more research along the same old lines, we should go back to the philosophical foundations and re-examine what it means to do economics."

Comment author: Cyan 27 September 2015 07:36:56PM *  0 points [-]

This is a field in which the discoverer of the theorem that rational agents cannot disagree was given the highest possible honours...

Comment author: VoiceOfRa 03 September 2015 03:52:15AM 5 points [-]

As scientists, we have to hold ourselves to a standard that requires us to reach a consensus about which model is right, and then to move on to other questions.

This is an example Goodhart's law. Real sciences of course ultimately reach a consensus around the truth, but trying for consensus for the sake of consensus is likely to result in a consensus around a false belief being reached.

Comment author: Lumifer 03 September 2015 04:19:24AM 0 points [-]

but trying for consensus for the sake of consensus

I think the aim is not consensus, but consistency. If two camps hold irreconcilable views, one of them is wrong and it's highly useful to know which one. The fact that both views have some domains where they seem to work better than the other is not a good excuse.

Comment author: VoiceOfRa 04 September 2015 01:38:05AM 0 points [-]

I think the aim is not consensus, but consistency.

Consistency with what. If you mean consistency with the truth, I agree. However, the context talks about consistency among expert positions, which is what is normally called consensus. Downvoted for introducing terminology for seemingly no purpose other than to confuse the issue.

If two camps hold irreconcilable views, one of them is wrong and it's highly useful to know which one.

True, however, pushing for consensus or consistency will not tell you which one is wrong. Rather it will result in one of them being declared "wrong", not necessarily the one that actually is.

The fact that both views have some domains where they seem to work better than the other is not a good excuse.

Ok, did you mean to write this in reply to some other comment?

Comment author: Lumifer 04 September 2015 01:44:59AM 2 points [-]

Consistency with what

Internal consistency of the science as a body of knowledge. "Consistency with the truth" is better expressed by the simple adjective "true".

It's not consensus either. Consistency is a property of a theory (or a set of theories). Consensus is a property of a set of experts.

pushing for consensus or consistency will not tell you which one is wrong

No, but it will provide impetus and motivation to find out which one is wrong.

Comment author: [deleted] 07 September 2015 08:10:14PM 0 points [-]

If two camps hold irreconcilable views, one of them is wrong and it's highly useful to know which one.

Unless of course you're operating in a situation best modelled by paraconsistent logic.

But finding that out would require looking.

Comment author: Lumifer 08 September 2015 12:57:35AM 3 points [-]

Unless of course you're operating in a situation best modelled by paraconsistent logic.

Would you care to provide some examples along with arguments why paraconsistent logic is the best way to model them?

Comment author: anna_macdonald 21 October 2015 04:28:06PM 0 points [-]

if we want economics to be a science

I've been wondering lately whether it is possible for economics to get a more empirical foundation. Clearly, a serious difficulty in the field is our lack of having a way for doing controlled trials. Does anyone know if anyone has tried bribing people to live in small-towns/enclaves (one to serve as control) for a time to see if we can isolate some effects at small levels that may or may not scale up? Or is this just too ridiculously impractical? (Or just too expensive?)

Comment author: Lumifer 21 October 2015 04:36:20PM 2 points [-]

lack of having a way for doing controlled trials

That's not true. Economics (in particular, microeconomics) can and actually does do a lot of controlled trials. I don't think that's the problem. Consider psychology -- it does a LOT of controlled trials and generates a very impressive amount of garbage.

Comment author: anna_macdonald 21 October 2015 08:21:59PM 0 points [-]

microeconomics) can and actually does do a lot of controlled trials.

Do you happen to know anywhere I can read simplified (layman-readable) results of some of these?

Psychology has recently been implicated in the "can't reproduce your results" scandal, suggesting that a lot of the garbage they generate is due, more or less, to pressure to publish, bias towards confirming expectations, and insufficient safeguards. Do microeconomics trials suffer the same problems?

Comment author: Lumifer 21 October 2015 08:27:33PM *  2 points [-]
Comment author: anna_macdonald 22 October 2015 03:33:23AM 0 points [-]
Comment author: anna_macdonald 22 October 2015 12:13:53AM 0 points [-]

Excellent, thank you!

Comment author: hairyfigment 04 September 2015 01:46:25AM 11 points [-]

It would be nice to think that you can trust powerful people who are aware that power corrupts. But this turns out not to be the case.

Comment author: hairyfigment 04 September 2015 01:47:03AM 4 points [-]

Until this day, Hussein still does not like government. He likes the people and the Party, but believes it is difficult for the government to judge fairly. Hussein observed individuals described as "kind and gentle" before serving in the government who subsequently became the opposite after their appointments to government positions.

  • FBI interrogation, via link above
Comment author: 27chaos 23 September 2015 06:31:42AM *  4 points [-]

I am suggesting that we move too quickly to the view that rationalism is always an assault on the romantic soul, that it is a symptom of anxiety about our own madly passionate natures, or that it is a flight from love. Instead, rationalism may have its adaptive side, one that seeks to reinforce the ego structures needed to experience the passionate intensity of human emotions. It is possible to see rationalism not as an escape from romanticism, not as a defensive maneuver to protect the self from the excesses of desire, but instead as an effort to master, to fully experience, our passionate natures.

-- Anne C. Dailey, in her paper Liberalism's Ambivalence.

Comment author: gjm 23 September 2015 04:15:56PM 1 point [-]

This appears to me to be using "rationalism" to denote something much "weaker" than, e.g., LW-style rationalism.

(Where by "weaker" I mean not "worse" but "having fewer claims and commitments".)

Comment author: Luke_A_Somers 25 September 2015 06:54:26PM 1 point [-]

At least it's working against the Straw Vulcan image.

And if by 'our passionate natures' one means 'fulfilling the values one would wish to have if one thought clearer, etc.' then it seems rather closely aligned. Of course, it doesn't - but it's not so far off.

Comment author: ChristianKl 17 September 2015 11:44:32AM 4 points [-]

Three of the most important [aspects of science] are that (1) science employs methods of systematic empiricism; (2) it aims for knowledge that is publicly verifiable; and (3) it seeks problems that are empirically solvable and that yield testable theories.

Keith E. Stanovich in How to Think Straight About Psychology

Comment author: ChristianKl 17 September 2015 11:43:08AM *  4 points [-]

In an important sense, scientific knowledge does not exist at all until it has been submitted to the scientific community for criticism and empirical testing by others.

Keith E. Stanovich in How to Think Straight About Psychology

Comment author: VoiceOfRa 18 September 2015 03:06:33AM 3 points [-]

But maybe making everyone equal is not what we are looking for. Maybe we are looking for bringing everyone up, and everyone doing the best they can do, rather than only bringing up those at the lower end.

Stuart Ritchie

Comment author: AspiringRationalist 03 September 2015 01:43:53AM *  12 points [-]

In 1736 I lost one of my sons, a fine boy of four years old, by the small-pox, taken in the common way. I long regretted bitterly, and still regret that I had not given it to him by inoculation. This I mention for the sake of parents who omit that operation, on the supposition that they should never forgive themselves if a child died under it; my example showing that the regret may be the same either way, and that, therefore, the safer should be chosen.

Ben Franklin

Comment author: g_pepper 03 September 2015 03:34:46AM 4 points [-]

Great quote, upvoted.

On a related note, the 9/7/2015 New Yorker has a lengthy article on the Salem Witchcraft Trials. The support of the trials provided by Cotton Mather is discussed at some length. The article also talks about Mather's advocacy for smallpox inoculations. That advocacy turned out to be just as controversial as his advocacy for the witchcraft trials; it led to someone tossing a bomb into Mather's window in November, 1721.

It is an interesting article and worth reading.

Comment author: Zubon 03 September 2015 04:26:59AM 5 points [-]
Comment author: [deleted] 19 September 2015 08:31:17AM *  5 points [-]

I recommend that before setting out to beat the market, you worry about whether you’ll be able to do as well as the market. The typical investor does worse than the market averages, usually due to buying more when the market is high than when it is low. Take a few minutes to imagine that you will be influenced by the mood of other investors to be pessimistic when the market has been doing poorly, and optimistic when the market has been doing well. Also imagine that you will have more money available to invest when the market is high than when it is low. If you’re confident that you can avoid these problems, please stop reading this post – you’re either good enough to not need my advice, or deluded enough that you ought to start somewhere else.

The efficient market hypothesis is an approximation that is good enough for many purposes, such as telling you that you shouldn’t be confident that you can beat the market by much unless you’ve got a really good track record [1].Many people infer from this that any effort to beat the market will be wasteful. Why do I disagree?The simplest answer is that if there were no inefficiencies in the market, the people who are making the market efficient wouldn’t have incentives to continue doing so.

Diversifying across countries reduces some hard-to-measure risks. One of the most thoughtless mistakes investors make is to invest mostly in stocks of their own country, when it makes more sense to underweight the country whose economy their other income is most correlated with. Betting on one country might make some sense if you have good reason to think it will do better, but you’re more likely to do it for signaling purposes or due to availability bias.

Note that most fund managers are experts at something. But that something is typically some form of “doing what the customer asks”, not beating the market. Amateur investors who try to pay experts to beat the market usually fail by mistaking luck for skill.

-Bayesian Investor Blog

Comment author: lmm 04 October 2015 11:13:55PM 0 points [-]

I'm not convinced on the international diversification example, particularly if the best argument is "some hard-to-measure risks". Most of the time the things you want to buy are in your own country, so any diversification is taking on a large foreign exchange risk.

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 16 September 2015 07:57:24AM *  5 points [-]

I sought good judgment mostly by collecting instances of bad judgment, then pondering ways to avoid such outcomes... I became so avid a collector of instances of bad judgment that I paid no attention to boundaries between professional territories. After all, why should I search for some tiny, unimportant, hard-to-find new stupidity in my own field when some large, important, easy-to-find stupidity was just over the fence in the other fellow's professional territory? Besides, I could already see that real-world problems didn't neatly lie within territorial boundaries. They jumped right across. And I was dubious of any approach that, when two things were inextricably intertwined and interconnected, would try and think about one thing but not the other. I was afraid, if I tried any such restricted approach, that I would end up, in the immortal words of John L. Lewis, "with no brain at all, just a neck that had haired over."

- Charlie Munger (Warren Buffet's partner) in Poor Charlie's Almanack (The Psychology of Human Misjudgment section)

Comment author: tut 16 September 2015 10:35:35AM 4 points [-]

This feels very much like a setup for saying "But I was wrong, you need experience and other background knowledge to even understand these things" or something like that. Is that the continuation in the book?

Comment author: Vaniver 16 September 2015 03:33:27PM 1 point [-]

No. Munger and Buffet both claim that a huge part of their success has simply been avoiding failures, especially of the type caused by poor rationality. Munger in particular was very taken with the same Heuristics and Biases literature that informed much of the Sequences.

Comment author: CCC 16 September 2015 09:48:23AM 3 points [-]

why should I search for some tiny, unimportant, hard-to-find new stupidity in my own field

Surely that's precisely the sort that's most useful to find, categorise, and note down as an example to avoid later...

Comment author: Lumifer 16 September 2015 02:36:08PM 1 point [-]

I don't know about hard to find, but surely searching for large and important stupidities is more useful..?

Comment author: CCC 17 September 2015 08:16:35AM *  3 points [-]

There's some usefulness to it; but the thing is, if it's an easy to find stupidity, then it's a stupidity that you already know to be a stupidity. It teaches you comparatively little about good or bad judgment.

A hard-to-find stupidity is one that's subtle and difficult to recognise. It's one that is not obviously a stupidity, one that you do not easily recognise on sight. Therefore, a hard-to-find stupidity will teach you more about the difference between good and bad judgment than an easy-to-find one...

Also, the importance of the stupidities is largely irrelevant to the stated goal - the importance of the consequences has little effect on how good or bad the judgment behind the decision was.

(Now, if you're trying to fix stupidities, instead of learning from them, then the large, important, easy-to-find ones are the ones to look at...)

Comment author: Lumifer 17 September 2015 03:10:59PM 0 points [-]

if it's an easy to find stupidity, then it's a stupidity that you already know to be a stupidity. It teaches you comparatively little about good or bad judgment

Eh, I don't know about that. Many similar stupidities look radically different in different contexts. It's hard to overstate the effect of formulations, frameworks, and angles of view on the perception of basically the same things. I think what Charlie Munger was doing was looking for patterns which he could then discern in unexpected places.

Easy-to-find vs hard -to-find is mostly a difference in context. Put Waldo into a picture of a night sky and, well...

Comment author: CCC 29 September 2015 02:14:31PM 1 point [-]

Hmmm. You are right that an easy-to-find stupidity in one case may be hard to find in another. But finding it in the easy case does not always make it all that much easier to find in the hard case - finding Waldo in a picture of the night sky does not make a Where's Waldo book any easier.

...of course, knowing what Waldo looks like does make it easier to know when you have found him.

Comment author: tut 16 September 2015 03:23:27PM 3 points [-]

Unless the other fellow isn't an idiot, so that "large, important, easy-to-find stupidity in the other fellow's professional territory" is correspondingly more likely to be imaginary.

Comment author: Lumifer 16 September 2015 03:43:33PM 1 point [-]

"Most advances in science come when a person for one reason or another is forced to change fields" -- Peter Borden

Comment author: gjm 17 September 2015 08:57:44AM 6 points [-]

That sounds clever, but is it actually anywhere near true?

I went to the Wikipedia "timeline of science" page and sampled a bunch of 20th-century advances. Maybe about 10. Not one of them had anything to do with anyone being forced to change fields.

I have no idea who Peter Borden is (nor for that matter any idea whether he actually said it: "Most quotations on the internet are made up" -- Abraham Lincoln) but I would at this point suspect him of being too ready to believe things merely because they sound good.

Comment author: hairyfigment 17 September 2015 09:27:17AM 1 point [-]

I don't think it's remotely true. Only Newton comes to mind as a possible example, and only if we accept the claim that he wouldn't have written so much about physics if he could have published his critique of the divinity of Jesus.

Comment author: Lumifer 17 September 2015 03:14:05PM 0 points [-]

That sounds clever, but is it actually anywhere near true?

It was a convenient quote, but I admit it overstates its case. A more defensible version would probably sound like "A disproportionate amount of advances in science comes from outsiders to the field".

The three names which pop into my head without going to Google are Schliemann (and Calvert), Wegener, and Sokal :-)

Comment author: gjm 17 September 2015 03:58:01PM 0 points [-]

So, Schliemann and Calvert were indeed amateurs. Wegener seems to have been as much polymath as field-switcher (aside from continental drift, he worked in meteorology and astronomy). Sokal's work in mathematics and physics seems (1) not particularly, ah, boundary-transgressing and (2) not especially notable, so I guess you are referring to his foray into bullshit-hunting; that was indeed successful but I don't see that it was a major advance in science.

This doesn't seem like a disproportionate amount. In fact, I would naively expect quite a lot of major advances to come from that sort of cross-fertilization, and I was rather surprised to find no field-switchers in my sample. So perhaps we can amend it to "Somewhat fewer scientific advances than one would expect come from people switching fields for any reason"?

Comment author: Lumifer 17 September 2015 04:24:30PM *  0 points [-]

As I said, this was just off the top of my head without any Google assists. I suspect at least part of this idea goes back to Popper and his necessity of periodic revolutions to clear out the deadwood and establish the new base for advancing further.

I don't expect that trying to make a hard fact out of my observation is going to be useful. For one, to make it at least falsifiable we'd need hard definitions of "disproportionate" and "advances", plus we're already talking of expectations, so it's going to be either a mess or a pedantic slog. If you think the observation is misleading, well, it's not the first time we disagree on fuzzy things :-)

Comment author: gjm 17 September 2015 06:07:02PM 0 points [-]

I also don't expect that trying to make a hard fact out of the observation is going to be useful; but not because some of the words in it are fuzzy, but because any halfway reasonable definition of them is going to make it flatly wrong. At any rate, I hope we can agree that the original claim in the original quotation is flatly wrong.

Comment author: Luke_A_Somers 25 September 2015 06:46:11PM 0 points [-]

On the other hand, the other fellow didn't get the advantage of hindsight!

Comment author: VoiceOfRa 25 September 2015 11:07:36PM 0 points [-]

That is a potentially valid reason, assuming you can point to what specifically the other fellow failed to foresee.

Comment author: Daniel_Burfoot 26 September 2015 09:26:04PM 2 points [-]

I would love to see Munger's list of Bad Judgment Episodes. Or maybe we could have a LW thread enumerating historical examples of bad judgment.

Comment author: WalterL 02 September 2015 05:57:20PM 5 points [-]

The barriers are not erected which can say to aspiring talents and industry, 'Thus far and no farther.'

Ludwig van Beethoven

Literature and Music in the Atlantic World, 1767-1867

Comment author: username2 11 September 2015 07:14:03PM -2 points [-]

“The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough. They’re there to stop the other people.”

Randy Pausch, The Last Lecture

Comment author: tut 12 September 2015 08:40:17AM 1 point [-]

Why are you using the username account to (re)post trivial determination-signaling quotes? If you are afraid that this will be downvoted, that's because you realize that it is no good, in which case you shouldn't post it. If not, why don't you use your own account?

Comment author: entirelyuseless 12 September 2015 02:16:26PM 3 points [-]

Downvotes are not 100% correlated with bad content.

Comment author: tut 13 September 2015 01:27:37PM 1 point [-]

In general, sure, there are several reasons why something might be downvoted. But for that comment, the only one I could see any relevance of is that it is a bad quote.

Comment author: [deleted] 17 September 2015 01:39:51PM 6 points [-]

“Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.”

  • Marcus Aurelius
Comment author: VoiceOfRa 17 September 2015 05:48:15AM 5 points [-]

A man who lies to himself is often the first to take offense. It sometimes feels very good to take offense, doesn't it? And surely he knows that no one has offended him, and that he himself has invented the offense and told lies just for the beauty of it, that he has exaggerated for the sake of effect, that he has picked on a word and made a mountain out of a pea -- he knows all of that, and still he is the first to take offense, he likes feeling offended, it gives him great pleasure, and thus he reaches the point of real hostility

"The Brothers Karamazov", Dostoyevsky

Comment author: cody-bryce 20 September 2015 01:28:02AM 3 points [-]

"Fortune favors the prepared mind." -Louis Pasteur

Comment author: VoiceOfRa 03 September 2015 03:58:55AM 5 points [-]

The free-market system has salient flaws and hidden benefits. All other systems have hidden flaws and salient benefits.

Nassim Taleb

Comment author: Manfred 04 September 2015 04:11:55AM 0 points [-]

Well, if everyone knew it had hidden flaws, I guess they wouldn't be hidden, eh?

Comment author: ChristianKl 12 September 2015 08:47:53AM 5 points [-]

Well, if everyone knew it had hidden flaws, I guess they wouldn't be hidden, eh?

No, that's not the case. I know with high certainity that the version of Firefox I use is vunerable to various 0-day attacks. At the same time I can't point to specific ones. Specific one's are hidden.

Comment author: Luke_A_Somers 25 September 2015 06:49:40PM 1 point [-]

If everyone already knew everything I was about to say, there wouldn't be much point in saying it either.

Comment author: philh 02 October 2015 01:49:34PM 0 points [-]

Well, that depends. Does everyone know that everyone knows that someone has blue eyes?

Comment author: [deleted] 03 September 2015 01:37:53PM 3 points [-]

Tomorrow is the busiest day of the week -

spanish proverb.

Originally read in the rescuetime website inside my account.

Comment author: [deleted] 03 September 2015 01:27:54PM 3 points [-]

In computer science, a problem is said to have optimal substructure if an optimal solution can be constructed efficiently from optimal solutions of its subproblems. This property is used to determine the usefulness of dynamic programming and greedy algorithms for a problem.[1]

Typically, a greedy algorithm is used to solve a problem with optimal substructure if it can be proved by induction that this is optimal at each step.[1] Otherwise, provided the problem exhibits overlapping subproblems as well, dynamic programming is used. If there are no appropriate greedy algorithms and the problem fails to exhibit overlapping subproblems, often a lengthy but straightforward search of the solution space is the best alternative

wiki: optimal substructure.

Comment author: 50lbsofstorkmeat 25 September 2015 02:28:14PM *  5 points [-]

As you've posted eight quotes this month, I'm downvoting your three worst quotes. The rule against posting too many quotes is there for a reason.

Comment author: [deleted] 01 October 2015 01:21:19AM 0 points [-]

That is just. Thank you for bringing this indiscretion to my attention.

Comment author: elharo 02 September 2015 09:55:07AM 3 points [-]

if the Taj Mahal happens to be made of white tiles held to brown granite by tan grotte, there is nothing to prevent you from affirming that the Taj Mahal is white and the Taj Mahal is brown and the Taj Mahal is tan, and claiming both tan and brown to lie in the area of significance space we’ve marked as ‘nonwhite’—”

“Wait a second: Part of the Taj Mahal is white, and part of the Taj Mahal is brown, and part of the Taj Mahal is—”

“The solution’s even simpler than that. You see, just like ‘white,’ the words ‘Taj Mahal’ have a range of significance that extends, on one side, at least as far as the gates have set their boundaries around the same area. Treating soft-edged interpenetrating clouds as though they were hard-edged bricks does not offer much help if you want to build a real discussion of how to build a real house. Ordinary, informal, nonrigorous language overcomes all these problems, however, with a bravura, panache and elegance that leave the formal logician panting and applauding

--Samuel R. Delaney, Trouble on Triton, An Ambiguous Heterophobia, 1976

Comment author: ChristianKl 12 September 2015 08:43:11AM 2 points [-]

We really have to think of reasoning the way we think of romance, it takes two to tango. There has to be a communication.

Daniel Dennett in TAM 2014 - Panel: Can Rationality Be Taught?

Comment author: Zubon 03 September 2015 03:19:09AM 2 points [-]

People condition on information that isn’t true.

Andrew Gelman, "The belief was so strong that it trumped the evidence before them."

Comment author: [deleted] 07 September 2015 08:08:00PM 4 points [-]

Of course, a good hierarchical Bayes reasoner is going to use huge amounts of prior information against small amounts of countervailing evidence. Do you start believing in ghosts every time someone puts on a white sheet and jumps out at you?

Comment author: Zubon 11 September 2015 12:25:56PM 1 point [-]

Did you mean to reply to a different post? That doesn't seem relevant to either the quote or the source article. A better metaphor here would be not believing in linens when someone puts on a white sheet and jumps out at you.

Comment author: username2 11 September 2015 07:16:10PM 3 points [-]

Well, if you see something ghost-like, that's a weak evidence in favor of existence of ghosts. But it's a weak evidence, it doesn't trump everything else we know about the world.

Comment author: Luke_A_Somers 25 September 2015 06:51:49PM 1 point [-]

On the other hand, in this case, it was more that they didn't check, than that they didn't believe the evidence.

Comment author: hairyfigment 04 September 2015 01:41:09AM 2 points [-]

How is the world ruled and how do wars start? Diplomats tell lies to journalists and then believe what they read.

  • Karl Kraus, via.
Comment author: [deleted] 26 September 2015 08:01:39PM 0 points [-]

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.

Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower.

-- Karl Marx, in A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right

Comment author: hairyfigment 29 September 2015 07:39:34AM 0 points [-]

So, I think this quote does have a slight amount of value for rationality. But driving away most of Earth's population from existential risk (or at least from LW and MIRI) would appear to have much lower E(U) than doing nothing.

What happened to the idea of rewriting the Sequences to remove all religious examples? (This is a real question.)

Comment author: TheAncientGeek 05 October 2015 08:54:24AM 2 points [-]

What about including the idea that religious thinking isn't limited to religion? After all. religious people aren't wired up in some fundamentally different way to everyone else.

Comment author: gjm 29 September 2015 11:12:10AM 0 points [-]

I suppose Marx (if brought suitably up to date) would reply that the downside of driving some people away would be more than compensated by the upside of liberating some people from their religious delusions and thus enabling them to think more clearly about existential risk.

(I've no idea whether he'd be right.)

There's a comment from one of the people responsible for the Sequences ebook, arguing that it wouldn't be feasible to remove all the anti-religious material and speculating on whether re-ordering what's there might make it less of an immediate turn-off for religious readers.

Comment author: CCC 29 September 2015 02:24:41PM *  3 points [-]

As a religious person myself, I have to say that's the one part of the Sequences that seems to me to be poorly fitted. (I haven't read them all, but in the ones I have read). Its inclusion seems to follow one of two patterns.

The first pattern is, "all religion is false and I do not have to explain why because it is obvious". These I ignore, as they give me no information to work from. (Your use of the phrase "religious delusions" I also class under this category).

The second pattern is, "I have known religious people who have fallen into this fallacy, this trap, this way of reasoning poorly, and have used it to support their claims". Again, this tells me nothing about whether or not God exists; it merely tells me that some people's arguments in favour of God's existence are flawed. It means nothing. I can give you a flawed argument for the proposition that 16/64 is equal to 1/4; the fact that my argument is flawed does not make 16/64 == 1/4 false.

...so, as far as I've so far seen, that's pretty much where things stand. The Sequences praise the virtues of clear thought, of looking at evidence before coming to a conclusion, of not writing the line at the bottom of the page until after you have written the argument on the page... and then, in this one matter, insist on giving the line at the bottom of the page and not the argument? It just gives the feeling of being tacked on, an atheist meme somehow caught up where it doesn't, strictly speaking, belong.

...maybe there's something in the parts I haven't yet read that explains this discreprency. I doubt it, because if there was I imagine it would be linked to a lot more often, but it is still possible.

Comment author: WinterShaker 30 September 2015 12:56:02PM 5 points [-]

I think (with the caveat that I've read a lot but not all of the sequences) that it is Yudkowsky's position that religions are specific manifestations of a whole cluster of more general failures of rationality, and that once someone truly internalises all of the best techniques for separating probable truths from probable untruths, it will be more-or-less impossible for that person to remain religious (unless, of course, they are sitting on a mountain of evidence in favour of the existence of one or more gods which has not been made available to the rest of us), and that it will be <i>obvious</i> that the specific claims of religions are false.

So yes, there is not much in there that explicitly rebuts the god hypothesis, but probably the closest thing to what you are looking for is <a href="http://lesswrong.com/lw/1e/raising_the_sanity_waterline/">Raising the Sanity Waterline,</a> which lists the ideas that ought to make discarding religions into one of the low-hanging fruits of any attempt at upgrading one's rationality.

Comment author: CCC 05 October 2015 09:38:50AM 1 point [-]

probably the closest thing to what you are looking for is Raising the Sanity Waterline which lists the ideas that ought to make discarding religions into one of the low-hanging fruits of any attempt at upgrading one's rationality.

The thing is, if it really was such a low-hanging fruit, then it would seem likely that the most successful scientists would have done so already (there's a lot in rationality which makes it good at science). Since the same article points out the existence of Nobel laureates who are religious in one or other way, I think it is not nearly as obvious a matter as the article suggests...

Comment author: gjm 05 October 2015 01:30:41PM *  1 point [-]

Religious belief is apparently much less common

  • among scientists than in the general population
  • among very successful scientists than among scientists generally

especially if one defines "religious belief" in a way that makes it have actual consequences for the observable world (e.g., a god who actually affects what happens in the world rather than just winding it up and then leaving it alone).

See e.g. this summary of the results of asking scientists about their beliefs and the letter to Nature that the summary is mostly about. (Note: there's some scope for debate about the interpretation of these results, though I find the arguments at the far end of that link extremely unconvincing.)

[EDITED to fix a wrong link; thanks to CCC for pointing it out.]

Comment author: CCC 06 October 2015 09:57:25AM 1 point [-]

I notice that their definition of "greater scientists" - which seems to have been what you referred to as "very successful scientists" - was "members of the National Academy of Sciences". While I have no doubt that one needs to be a pretty great scientist to become a member, the results lead me to wonder whether the membership process for joining the Academy has an atheist bias in it somewhere.

I notice that the figures for scientists generally are more constant from 1914 to 1996, with approximately 60% of scientists expressing "disbelief or doubt in the existence of God" - since the selection of respondents here is not subject to the (potentially biased) membership process of a single organisation, I would give this general figure far greater credence that it shows what it purports to show.

(Also, I think you may have linked the wrong page in your "scope for debate" link - it's linking to the same page as your "this summary" link)

Comment author: gjm 06 October 2015 04:25:59PM 1 point [-]

whether the membership process for joining the Academy has an atheist bias

It's possible. (I suppose new members are nominated and elected by existing members, and people may tend to favour candidates who resemble themselves and be influenced by politics, religion, skin colour, etc., etc., etc.) It would need to be quite a strong bias to produce the reported results in the absence of a tendency for "greater scientists" to be less (conventionally) religious than scientists in general.

The last paragraph of the Larson-Witham letter to Nature looks to me like (weak) evidence against a strong atheistic bias in the NAS, in that if there were such a bias I would expect its public utterances and those of its leaders to be a bit less conciliatory. As I say, weak evidence only.

(There could also be a bias in responses; maybe atheists are more cooperative in surveys or something. I would expect any such bias to be small and it's not obvious to me which way it's more likely to go.)

you may have linked the wrong page

Yup, I did. I've linked the right one now. Sorry about that.

Comment author: CCC 07 October 2015 11:47:27AM 1 point [-]

It's possible. (I suppose new members are nominated and elected by existing members, and people may tend to favour candidates who resemble themselves and be influenced by politics, religion, skin colour, etc., etc., etc.)

Yes, that's the sort of thing I'm thinking of. People (in general) are usually more comfortable associating with people who share their opinions.

The last paragraph of the Larson-Witham letter to Nature looks to me like (weak) evidence against a strong atheistic bias in the NAS, in that if there were such a bias I would expect its public utterances and those of its leaders to be a bit less conciliatory. As I say, weak evidence only.

Very weak evidence; it's easy to be conciliatory if one can also be smugly superior in pointing out how wrong the other party is (which is one possible, not necessarily correct interpretation of the last sentence of that paragraph).

(There could also be a bias in responses; maybe atheists are more cooperative in surveys or something. I would expect any such bias to be small and it's not obvious to me which way it's more likely to go.)

That is a point which I had not considered. I'm not sure which way it would go either (unless they did the survey by phoning people at their homes on a Sunday morning, when many Christians would be at church, but that would just be stupid)

Yup, I did. I've linked the right one now. Sorry about that.

Ah, thanks.

...that Gallup evolution poll at the start seems quite telling. It suggests that the difference between scientists and the general public is entirely in the (much larger) rejection of young-earth creationism. This fits with my expectations (which is probably why I draw attention to it).

Comment author: Vaniver 30 September 2015 01:24:44PM 1 point [-]

Comments use markdown syntax, not html, so you're looking for the following:

[Raising the Sanity Waterline,](http://lesswrong.com/lw/1e/raising_the_sanity_waterline/)

Raising the Sanity Waterline,

Similarly, italics are achieved by putting a * in front of and behind the italicized word. You can find more by clicking the "Show help" button in the bottom right.


I would note that at present, "religious" is mostly synonymous with "supernaturalist," but this does not have to be the case. The truth destroys supernaturalism, but whether or not it destroys humanism is unclear. See Feeling Rational for a related discussion.

Comment author: gjm 29 September 2015 04:43:27PM 4 points [-]

Your use of the phrase "religious delusions"

For the avoidance of doubt, I was putting that in the mouth of Hypothetical Modern-Day Karl Marx rather than expressing my own attitude to religion. (In case you care: I am an atheist; my wife is an active Christian; I firmly disagree with all the religions I know enough about to have an opinion but don't think words like "delusion" are generally helpful for describing them.)

As for the use of religion in the Sequences, I think what's going on is this:

  • Eliezer thinks it's really obvious, when one thinks clearly, that the usual religions are wrong.
  • He expects most of his readers to agree and have similar reasons.
  • On the other hand, there are plenty of religious people about, some of whom are very smart.
  • So he uses religion as an example of something that convinces lots of people despite being very wrong.
  • Of course some of his readers will disagree, but he anticipates less disagreement on religion than on other topics where he sees widespread wrongness.
  • He doesn't spend time arguing against religion because (1) he expects most people who remain religious despite exposure to hardcore rational thinking to be basically unpersuadable and (2) discussions of religion have a way of taking over (a bit like discussions of hot-button political issues) and he didn't want everyone engaged in religious flamewars rather than discussions of other things.

That all seems reasonable (whether or not correct) to me.

Comment author: CCC 29 September 2015 07:03:21PM 2 points [-]

For the avoidance of doubt, I was putting that in the mouth of Hypothetical Modern-Day Karl Marx rather than expressing my own attitude to religion.

...ah. I completely misconstrued your intentions there. My apologies.

As for the use of religion in the Sequences, I think what's going on is this:

I think you are very probably correct, or close to correct. Unfortunately, it seems to have had the effect of turning atheism into something of an applause light in the comments.

Comment author: gjm 29 September 2015 07:45:13PM 3 points [-]

turning atheism into something of an applause light

Well, religious (and anti-religious) debates have the reputation they have for a reason :-).

Comment author: 50lbsofstorkmeat 30 September 2015 06:10:00AM *  4 points [-]

The basic form of the atheistic argument found in the Sequences is as follows: "The theistic hypothesis has high Kolmogorov complexity compared to the atheistic hypothesis. The absence of evidence for God is evidence for the absence of god. This in turn suggests that the large number of proponents of religion is more likely due to God being an improperly privileged hypothesis in our society rather than Less Wrong and the atheist community in general missing key pieces of evidence in favour of the theistic hypothesis."

Now, you could make a counterpoint along the lines of "But what about 'insert my evidence for God here'? Doesn't that suggest the opposite, and that God IS real?" There is almost certainly some standard rebuttal to that particular piece of evidence which most of us have already previously seen. God is a very well discussed topic, and most of the points anyone will bring up have been brought up elsewhere. And so, Less Wrong as a community has for the most part elected to not entertain these sorts of arguments outside of the occasional discussion thread, if only so that we can discuss other topics without every thread becoming about religion (or politics).

Comment author: TheAncientGeek 05 October 2015 10:07:06AM 1 point [-]

yes, the debate here is well worn: the only novelty is less wrong's degree of confidence that they have right answer. Might that be what is attracting debate, as opposed to "most of us are atheists, but whatever".

Comment author: entirelyuseless 03 October 2015 05:26:04PM *  1 point [-]

"There is almost certainly some standard rebuttal to that particular piece of evidence..."

Evidence is not something that needs "rebuttal." There is valid evidence both for and against a claim, regardless of whether the claim is true or false.

Comment author: 50lbsofstorkmeat 04 October 2015 12:53:16AM 0 points [-]

That's fair. Though, I'd put my mistake less on the word "rebuttal" and more on the word "evidence." The particular examples I had in mind when writing that post were non-evidence "evidences" of God's existence like the complexity of the human eye, or fine structure of the universe. Cases where things are pointed to as being evidence despite the fact that they are just as and often more likely to exist if God doesn't exist than they would be if he did.

Comment author: CCC 30 September 2015 08:16:11AM 0 points [-]

The theistic hypothesis has high Kolmogorov complexity compared to the atheistic hypothesis.

I find this unconvincing. The basic theistic hypothesis is a description of an omnipotent, omniscient being; together with the probable aims and suspected intentions of such a being. The laws of physics would then derive from this.

The basic atheistic hypothesis is, as far as I understand it, the laws of physics themselves, arising from nothing, simply existing.

I am not convinced that the Kolmogorov complexity of the first is higher then the Kolmogorov complexity of the second. (Mind you, I haven't really compared them all that thoroughly - I could be wrong about that. But it, at the very least, is not obviously higher).

Comment author: hairyfigment 02 October 2015 02:08:03AM *  5 points [-]

Before seeing this I thought you rejected all priors based on Kolmogorov complexity, as that seemed like the only way to save your position. (From what you said before you've read at least some of what Eliezer wrote on the difficulty of writing an AGI program. Hopefully you've read about the way that an incautious designer could create levers which do nothing, since the human brain is inclined to underestimate its own complexity.)

While guessing is clearly risky, it seems like you're relying on the idea that a program to simulate the right kind of "omnipotent, omniscient being" would necessarily show it creating our laws of physics. Otherwise it would appear absurd to compare the complexity of the omni-being to that of physics alone. (It also sounds like you're talking about a fundamentally mental entity, not a kind of local tyrant existing within physics.) But you haven't derived any of our physics from even a more specific theistic hypothesis, nor did the many intelligent people who thought about the logical implications of God in the Middle Ages! Do you actually think they just failed to come up with QM or thermodynamics because they didn't think about God enough?

Earlier when you tried to show that assuming any omni-being implied an afterlife, you passed over the alternative of an indifferent omni^2 without giving a good reason. You also skipped the idea of an omni-being not having people die in the first place. In general, a habit of ignoring alternatives will lead you to overestimate the prior probability of your theory. And in this case, if you want to talk about an omni^2 that has an interest in humans, we would naively expect it to create some high-level laws of physics which mention humans. You have not addressed this. It seems like in practice you're taking a scientific model of the world and adding the theistic hypothesis as an additional assumption, which - in the absence of evidence for your theory over the simpler one - lowers the probability by a factor of 2^(something on the order of MIRI's whole reason for being). Or at least it does by assumptions which you seem to accept.

Maybe the principle will be clearer if we approach it from the evidence side. Insofar as an omni^2 seems meaningful, I'd expect its work to be near optimal for achieving its goals. I say that literally nothing in existence which we didn't make is close to optimal for any goal, except a goal that overfits the data in a way that massively lowers that goal's prior probability. Show me an instance. And please remember what I said about examining alternatives.

Comment author: CCC 05 October 2015 09:20:17AM *  -1 points [-]

While guessing is clearly risky, it seems like you're relying on the idea that a program to simulate the right kind of "omnipotent, omniscient being" would necessarily show it creating our laws of physics.

Yes, I think so.

It also sounds like you're talking about a fundamentally mental entity, not a kind of local tyrant existing within physics.

Yes, that is correct.

But you haven't derived any of our physics from even a more specific theistic hypothesis, nor did the many intelligent people who thought about the logical implications of God in the Middle Ages! Do you actually think they just failed to come up with QM or thermodynamics because they didn't think about God enough?

A few seconds' googling suggests (article here) that a monk by the name of Udo of Aachen figured out the Mandelbrot set some seven hundred years before Mandelbrot did by, essentially, thinking about God. (EDIT: It turns out Udo was an April Fools' hoax from 1999. See here for details.)

Mind you, simply starting from a random conception of God and attempting to derive a universe will essentially lead to a random universe. To start from the right conception of God necessarily requires some sort of observation - and I do think it is easier to derive the laws of physics from observation of the universe than it is to derive the mindset of an omniscient being (since the second seems to require first deriving the laws of physics in order to check your conclusions).


Earlier when you tried to show that assuming any omni-being implied an afterlife, you passed over the alternative of an indifferent omni^2 without giving a good reason. You also skipped the idea of an omni-being not having people die in the first place.

You are right. I skipped over the idea of an entirely indifferent omni-being; that case seems to have minimal probability of an afterlife (as does the atheist universe; in fact, they seem to have the same minimal probability). Showing that the benevolent case increases the probability of an afterlife is then sufficient to show that the probability of an afterlife is higher in the theistic universe than the atheistic universe (though the difference is less than one would expect from examining only the benevolent case).

I also skipped the possibility of there being no death at all; I skipped this due to the observation that this is not the universe in which we live. (I could argue that the process of evolution requires death, but that raises the question of why evolution is important, and the only answer I can think of there - i.e. to create intelligent minds - seems very self-centred)

And in this case, if you want to talk about an omni^2 that has an interest in humans, we would naively expect it to create some high-level laws of physics which mention humans.

I question whether it has an interest in humans specifically, or in intelligent life as a whole. (And there is at least a candidate for a high-level law of physics which mentions humans in particular - "humans have free will". It is not proven, despite much debate over the centuries, but it is not disproven either, and it is hard to see how it can derive from other physical laws)


Insofar as an omni^2 seems meaningful, I'd expect its work to be near optimal for achieving its goals.

This seems likely. It implies that the universe is the optimal method for achieving said goals, and therefore that said goals can be derived from a sufficiently close study of the universe.

It should also be noted that aesthetics may be a part of the design goals; in the same way as a dance is generally a very inefficient way for moving from point A to point B, the universe may have been designed in part to fulfill some (possibly entirely alien) sense of aesthetics.

I say that literally nothing in existence which we didn't make is close to optimal for any goal, except a goal that overfits the data in a way that massively lowers that goal's prior probability. Show me an instance. And please remember what I said about examining alternatives.

I can't seem to think of one off the top of my head. (Mind you, I'm not sure that the goal of the universe has been reached yet; it may be something that we can't recognise until it happens, which may be several billion years away)

Comment author: hairyfigment 12 October 2015 02:25:52AM 5 points [-]

Do you actually think they just failed to come up with QM or thermodynamics because they didn't think about God enough?

A few seconds' googling suggests (article here) that a monk by the name of Udo of Aachen figured out the Mandelbrot set some seven hundred years before Mandelbrot did by, essentially, thinking about God.

Took me a while to check this, because of course it would have been evidence for my point. (By the way, throughout this conversation, you've shown little awareness of the concept or the use of evidence in Bayesian thought.)

Are you trolling us?

Comment author: CCC 12 October 2015 10:58:33AM 3 points [-]

...no, I am not intentionally trolling you. Thank you for finding that.

This is the danger of spending only a few seconds googling on a topic; on occasion, one finds oneself being fooled by a hoax page.

Comment author: gjm 30 September 2015 11:09:08AM 3 points [-]

the probable aims and suspected intentions of such a being

The general opinion around here (which I share) is that the complexity of those is much higher than you probably think it is. "Human-level" concepts like "mercy" and "adultery" and "benevolence" and "cowardice" feel simple to us, which means that e.g. saying "God is a perfectly good being" feels like a low-complexity claim; but saying exactly what they mean is incredibly complicated, if it's possible at all. Whereas, e.g., saying "electrons obey the Dirac equation" feels really complicated to us but is actually much simpler.

Of course you're at liberty to say: "No! Actually, human-level concepts really are simple, because the underlying reality of the universe is the mind of God, which entertains such concepts as easily as it does the equations of quantum physics". And maybe the relative plausibility of that position and ours ultimately depends on one's existing beliefs about gods and naturalism and so forth. I suggest that (1) the startling success of reductionist mathematics-based science in understanding, explaining and predicting the universe and (2) the total failure of teleological purpose-based thinking in the same endeavour (see e.g., the problem of evil) give good reason to prefer our position to yours.

The laws of physics would then derive from this.

That sounds really optimistic.

Comment author: VoiceOfRa 01 October 2015 03:42:00AM -1 points [-]

"Human-level" concepts like "mercy" and "adultery" and "benevolence" and "cowardice" feel simple to us

They can be derived from simple game theory as applied to humans.

Comment author: gjm 01 October 2015 12:23:30PM 1 point [-]

I'm not entirely convinced, but in any case even "human" is a really complicated concept.

Comment author: VoiceOfRa 02 October 2015 01:07:59AM *  -2 points [-]

I'm not entirely convinced, but in any case even "human" is a really complicated concept.

I guess that means humans don't exist. Oh, wait.

Comment author: TheAncientGeek 30 September 2015 03:09:47PM *  0 points [-]

Note that infinite sets can have very low informational complexity-- that's why complexity isn't a slam-dunk against MUH.

Don't think of infinite entities as very large finite entities.

Comment author: gjm 30 September 2015 03:23:23PM 0 points [-]

I'm pretty sure I wasn't thinking of infinite entities as very large finite entities, nor was I claiming that infinite sets must have infinite complexity or anything of the kind. What I was claiming high complexity for is the concept of "good", not God or "perfectly good" as opposed to "merely very good".

Comment author: TheAncientGeek 30 September 2015 06:19:32PM 0 points [-]

Wouldn't "perfectly good" be the appropriate concept here?

Comment author: CCC 05 October 2015 08:27:25AM 0 points [-]

The general opinion around here (which I share) is that the complexity of those is much higher than you probably think it is.

That is possible. I have no idea how to specify such things in a minimum number of bits of information.

Whereas, e.g., saying "electrons obey the Dirac equation" feels really complicated to us but is actually much simpler.

This is true; yet there may be fewer human-level concepts and more laws of physics. I am still unconvinced which complexity is higher; mainly because I have absolutely no idea how to measure the complexity of either in the first place. (One can do a better job of estimating the complexity of the laws of physics because they are better known, but they are not completely known).


But let us consider what happens if you are right, and the complexity of my hypothesis is higher than the complexity of yours. Then that would form a piece of probabilistic evidence in favour of the atheist hypothesis, and the correct action to take would be to update - once - in that direction by an appropriate amount. I'm not sure what an appropriate amount is; that would depend on the ratio of the complexities (but is capped by the possibility of getting that ratio wrong).

This argument does not, and can not, in itself, give anywhere near the amount of certainty implied by this statement (quoted from here):

...would rather push a button that would destroy the world if God exists, than a button that had a known probability of one in a billion of destroying the world.


I should also add that the existence of God does not invalidate reductionist mathematics-based thinking in any way.

Comment author: gjm 05 October 2015 09:40:25AM 1 point [-]

there may be fewer human-level concepts and more laws of physics

Well, I suppose in principle there might. But would you really want to bet that way?

update - once - in that direction by an appropriate amount

Yes, I completely agree.

capped by the possibility of getting that ratio wrong

Almost, but not exactly. It makes a difference how wrong, and in which direction.

can not [...] give anywhere near the amount of certainty [...] one in a billion

One in a billion is only about 30 bits. I don't think it's at all impossible for the complexity-based calculation, if one could do it, to give a much bigger odds ratio than that. The question then is what to do about the possibility of having got the complexity-based calculation (or actually one's estimate of it) badly wrong. I'm inclined to agree that when one takes that into account it's not reasonable to use an odds ratio as large as 10^9:1.

But it's not as if this complexity argument is the only reason anyone has for not believing in God. (Some people consider it the strongest reason, but "strongest" is not the same as "only".)

Incidentally, I offer the following (not entirely serious) argument for pressing the boom-if-God button rather than the boom-with-small-probability button: the chances of the world being undestroyed afterwards are presumably better if God exists.

Comment author: CCC 06 October 2015 10:07:34AM 1 point [-]

Well, I suppose in principle there might. But would you really want to bet that way?

Insufficient information to bet either way.

The question then is what to do about the possibility of having got the complexity-based calculation (or actually one's estimate of it) badly wrong. I'm inclined to agree that when one takes that into account it's not reasonable to use an odds ratio as large as 10^9:1.

Yes, that's what I meant by "capped" - if I did that calculation (somehow working out the complexities) and it told me that there was a one-in-a-billion chance, then there would be a far, far better than a one-in-a-billion chance that the calculation was wrong.

But it's not as if this complexity argument is the only reason anyone has for not believing in God. (Some people consider it the strongest reason, but "strongest" is not the same as "only".)

Noted.

If I assume that the second-strongest reason is (say) 80% as strong as the strongest reason (by which I mean, 80% as many bits of persuasiveness), the third-strongest reason is 80% as strong as that, and so on; if the strength of all this (potentially infinite) series of reasons is added together, it would come to five times as strong as the strongest reason.

Thus, for a thirty-bit strength from all the reasons, the strongest reason would need a six-bit strength - it would need to be worth one in sixty-four (approximately).

Of course, there's a whole lot of vague assumptions and hand-waving in here (particularly that 80% figure, which I just pulled out of nowhere) but, well, I haven't seen any reason to think it at all likely that the complexity argument is worth even three bits, never mind six.

(Mind you, I can see how a reasonable and intelligent person might disagree on me about that).

Incidentally, I offer the following (not entirely serious) argument for pressing the boom-if-God button rather than the boom-with-small-probability button: the chances of the world being undestroyed afterwards are presumably better if God exists.

...serious or not, that is a point worth considering. I'm not sure that it's true, but it could be interesting to debate.

Comment author: [deleted] 03 October 2015 05:07:06PM 1 point [-]

The basic theistic hypothesis is a description of an omnipotent, omniscient being; together with the probable aims and suspected intentions of such a being. The laws of physics would then derive from this.

"Omnipotent", "omniscient", and "being" are packing a whole shit-ton of complexity, especially "being". They're definitely packing more than a model of particle physics, since we know that all known "beings" are implemented on top of particle physics.

Comment author: Transfuturist 04 October 2015 05:18:43AM *  1 point [-]

I don't think mind designs are dependent on their underlying physics. The physics is a substrate, and as long as it provides general computation, intelligence would be achievable in a configuration of that physics. The specifics of those designs may depend on how those worlds function, like how jellyfish-like minds may be different from bird-like minds, but not the common elements of induction, analysis of inputs, and selection of outputs. That would mean the simplest a priori mind would have to be computed by the simplest provision of general computation, however. An infinitely divine Turing Machine, if you will.

That doesn't mean a mind is more basic than physics, though. That's an entirely separate issue. I haven't ever seen a coherent model of God in the first place, so I couldn't begin to judge the complexity of its unproposed existence. If God is a mind, then what substrate does it rest on?

Comment author: entirelyuseless 03 October 2015 05:33:41PM -1 points [-]

"Being" surely does not have more complexity than particle physics. Particles are already beings.

Comment author: CCC 05 October 2015 08:50:48AM 0 points [-]

We don't know that beings require particle physics - if the only animal I've ever seen is a dog, that is not proof that zebras don't exist.

I'm not saying that there isn't complexity in the word "being", just that I'm not convinced that your argument in favour of there being more complexity than particle physics is good.

Comment author: 50lbsofstorkmeat 30 September 2015 02:42:30PM -1 points [-]

Kolmogorov complexity is, in essence, "How many bits do you need to specify an algorithm which will output the predictions of your hypothesis?" A hypothesis which gives a universally applicable formula is of lower complexity than one which specifies each prediction individually. More simple formulas are of lower complexity than more complex formulas. And so on and so forth.

The source of the high Kolmogorov complexity for the theistic hypothesis is God's intelligence. Any religious theory which involves the laws of physics arising from God has to specify the nature of that God as an algorithm which specifies God's actions in every situation with mathematical precision and without reference to any physical law which would (under this theory) later arise from God. As you can imagine, doing so would take very, very many bits to do successfully. This leads to very high complexity as a result.

Comment author: CCC 05 October 2015 09:21:22AM 0 points [-]

If we assume that God is a free-willed agent, then that might even be impossible in a finite number of bits...

Comment author: 50lbsofstorkmeat 05 October 2015 08:03:43PM 0 points [-]

The number of bits required to specify an agent with free will (insofar as free will is a meaningful term when discussing a deterministic universe) is definitely finite. Very large, but finite. Which is a good thing, since Kolmogorov priors specify a prior of 0 for a hypothesis with infinite complexity and assigning a prior of 0 to a hypothesis is a Bad Thing for a variety of reasons.

Comment author: Lumifer 05 October 2015 08:19:30PM 4 points [-]

The number of bits required to specify an agent with free will

I don't understand the concept of specifying (in bits) an agent with free will.

Comment author: CCC 06 October 2015 09:13:02AM 1 point [-]

The number of bits required to specify an agent with free will (insofar as free will is a meaningful term when discussing a deterministic universe) is definitely finite. Very large, but finite.

...could you elaborate on this point a bit more? I'd really like to know how you prove that.

Comment author: RichardKennaway 30 September 2015 09:47:21AM 1 point [-]

As a religious person myself, I have to say that's the one part of the Sequences that seems to me to be poorly fitted.

Is this an instance of the template "As someone who believes X, I have to say that where this book argues against X is its weakest part."?

Comment author: gjm 30 September 2015 11:01:57AM 1 point [-]

Obviously it is. The more interesting question is whether, as with many instances of that template, CCC thinks the anti-religious material is weakest only because it conflicts with CCC's opinions.

(Those of us who think religion is Bad and Wrong are of course at the same risk of overrating them as CCC is of underrating them.)

Comment author: CCC 05 October 2015 08:08:16AM 1 point [-]

Yes, it probably is :)

However, I do think that I can provide an objective argument for it being poorly fitted. That argument is as follows; it is an important part of the Sequences that one should never write the conclusion to an argument before writing down the argument that leads to that conclusion (the last line on the page should not be written first).

Yet, in the particular case of atheism, we are shown only the last line, and not the supporting argument(s). Hence, poorly fitted to the Sequences as a whole.

Comment author: raydora 29 September 2015 04:14:47PM *  1 point [-]

What can you predict with the existence of your God that you can't predict without?

And what makes your God more likely than any other God or Gods?

I suppose it's a question of granularity. While there have been a number of sound arguments for 16/64 equalling 1/4, there are hitherto no arguments of equal strength for the existence of any particular deity.

16/64 being equal to 1/4 allows people to predict what will happen when they scale objects.

Comment author: CCC 29 September 2015 06:59:15PM 2 points [-]

What can you predict with the existence of your God that you can't predict without?

The existence of an afterlife. The presence of free will.

And what makes your God more likely than any other God or Gods?

I start with the question, "Is there a God?", by which I mean a being both omnipotent and omniscient. I am confident that the answer to that question is "yes".

I have since assigned a number of further ideas to this concept, some of which are almost certainly wrong (but I'm not sure which ones). It is highly likely that someone else has come up with a more accurate idea of God than my idea. (There are seven billion people on Earth; the odds of my idea being the most accurate are laughably small).

...does that answer your question?

Comment author: raydora 29 September 2015 10:14:47PM 1 point [-]

Yes, it does, though those answers lead to further questions.

How can you gain information from a prediction you cannot test, until you die? Is there some way to test it? Or have you encountered personal evidence of an afterlife already?

Why does free will or an afterlife require a God?

It's hard to convey tone in text, but these are honest questions. If they make you uncomfortable, it's fine if you ignore them.

Regarding the sequences, you may find it easier to derive the same information from books popularizing a lot of the source material it is based on, if the sequences themselves turn you off.

Comment author: CCC 30 September 2015 08:08:29AM 1 point [-]

How can you gain information from a prediction you cannot test, until you die?

Well, the obvious answer is "by dying". However, this also prevents me from communicating my results, calling the usefulness of the procedure into question...

Or have you encountered personal evidence of an afterlife already?

No, but there are people who have. Feel free to look them up.

Note that one of the requirements of canonisation as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church is that someone find evidence, sufficient to convince the Church, that the person being canonised is in the afterlife. So a look through the Vatican records will probably provide a number of examples to look over, if you'd like.

Why does free will or an afterlife require a God?

They do not require a God. My argument for both requires a God, but there may be other arguments that do not.

Regarding the sequences, you may find it easier to derive the same information from books popularizing a lot of the source material it is based on, if the sequences themselves turn you off.

Actually, by and large they don't. There is one element of the Sequences which niggles at me a bit, but it doesn't really bother me all that much; Eleizer is perfectly entitled to his opinions.

Comment author: gjm 30 September 2015 11:20:21AM 3 points [-]

there are people who have. Feel free to look them up.

This would be more impressive if it didn't so often happen that the ones with the best-sounding evidence so often turn out to be outright fraudulent. E.g., Eben Alexander's book ("Proof of Heaven") makes claims about his illness that are demonstrably untrue, and it turns out he's been in trouble before for reasons that call his integrity seriously into question (e.g., there is reason to think he's falsified patients' medical records); Alex Malarkey ("The Boy who went to Heaven") retracted his claims to have died and visited heaven.

one of the requirements of canonisation

Yeah, they do indeed require evidence sufficient to convince the church that the person is in the afterlife. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem like the church needs terribly good evidence. Typically what they want to see is a miracle performed by the proto-saint's intercession. E.g., the miracle that qualified the former Pope John Paul II for beatification (he hasn't been canonized yet) is that a nun had a neurological condition, she prayed for him to intercede for her, and she stopped having symptoms. But (1) no one actually knows exactly what condition she has or had, and hence no one knows how likely remission is even without divine intervention, and (2) she appears to have had a relapse since the alleged miracle.

Comment author: CCC 05 October 2015 08:34:18AM 2 points [-]

This would be more impressive if it didn't so often happen that the ones with the best-sounding evidence so often turn out to be outright fraudulent.

Yes, that is a problem - if you're making up the claim, you can make up evidence to be as convincing as you want.

Yeah, they do indeed require evidence sufficient to convince the church that the person is in the afterlife. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem like the church needs terribly good evidence.

Considering that the Church already thinks that there is an afterlife, the burden of proof they require is almost certainly lower - possibly significantly lower - than the burden of proof that you would be looking for... it's just the potential source of evidence that came most immediately to mind at the time.

Comment author: entirelyuseless 30 September 2015 02:40:37PM 0 points [-]

John Paul II was canonized more than a year ago (you might have been looking at an older news source and not noticed the date on it.) There are definitely problems with the Church's canonization process, and if they really cared about the validity of miracles like that, they should publish the facts of the case and an explanation of why they think it was a miracle. But they don't do that, which allows for a lot more wishful thinking.

A more reasonable example of a miracle claim (which is not about the afterlife) is this. Most explanations which do not accept it as a miracle are mistaken in obvious ways, as for example Brian Dunning's explanation in the linked article. I'm not sure where he got the idea that doctors did not testify to the amputation, but that is simply completely false.

Comment author: hairyfigment 29 September 2015 08:16:00PM 0 points [-]

So, I can't help but note that the existence of an afterlife does not follow from "a being both omnipotent and omniscient." ("Free will" does not seem terribly well defined, but "possibility and could-ness" in the sense of that post does not follow either - save perhaps for the omni-being, and then only in a more general sense.)

What can you predict with the part you expressed confidence in? What makes you confident?

Comment author: CCC 30 September 2015 07:52:40AM 0 points [-]

Ah. The presence of an omniscient, omnipotent being is important to the proof, but it is not the only element in that proof (the other elements are taken from observation of the universe, and are less controversial).

Consider; if an omnipotent, omniscient being exists, then it must take one of three stances with regard to humanity. It must either support the existence of humanity, or it must be neutral towards humanity, or it must support the non-existence of humanity. Since the being is omnipotent, if God wanted to wipe out humanity, God could (one or two well-placed asteroids a couple of million years back would have done it easily). Thus, I conclude that God is either in support of, or neutral towards humanity.

Now I also observe the universe around me, looking for traces of maliciousness in the laws of physics. So far, I have not found any. This implies that God is not into casual, petty cruelty without reason. It seems therefore likely that God is, at the very least, not evil.

The complete cessation of an intelligence would seem to be a great evil. Therefore, I postulate that there is a very strong probability that God has put some measures in place to prevent this. The measure most likely is some sort of afterlife; somewhere that a person can continue to survive, but not communicate back to those they leave behind.

Of course, this argument does not say that an afterlife is certain, given the existence of God, merely that it seems likely.


As to free will; here, I note that humans are demonstrably capable of the sort of casual cruelty that is absent from the laws of nature. Moreover, humans are capable of opposing each other. This strongly implies that at least some humans are capable of opposing what God wants. (This does not necessarily imply that said opposition has any chance of long-term success). This, in turn, seems to imply that humans do have some capacity to decide for themselves; hence, free will.

Comment author: gjm 30 September 2015 11:22:06AM 3 points [-]

If the absence of maliciousness in the laws of physics is good evidence that God is not evil, is the absence of benevolence in the laws of physics good evidence that God is not good?

Comment author: entirelyuseless 30 September 2015 01:33:27PM 0 points [-]

There is at least one thing in the laws of physics that seems like benevolence rather than the absence of it.

When animals have a strong tendency to do certain things, e.g. eat or engage in sex, those things tend to be pleasant to the animal.

That seems like benevolence. I could imagine a situation where everything that animals tended to do, was painful to them. You might say that is absurd, since then they would not tend to do those things. But they do those things because of the laws of physics, not because of how they feel. So there is nothing absurd about it, just like a person can be on a rollercoaster without any control over what is happening. It would be pretty terrible if life was like that, but fortunately it's not.

Comment author: CCC 05 October 2015 08:38:29AM 0 points [-]

That would be a reasonable argument to make.

I would follow it up by claiming that the existence of free will is evidence of benevolence in the laws of physics.

Comment author: gjm 30 September 2015 11:29:55AM 1 point [-]

"Free will" is an ambiguous term. The sort of free will you've argued for here could be paraphrased as "not being God's puppets", but I hope it's obvious that that can't be evidence of God's existence. But you listed "free will" as something you can explain with God better than without!

I really don't think the fact that people sometimes do things a god should be expected to disapprove of can be evidence for that god's existence. Do you?

(Perhaps the argument you have in mind makes essential use of the fact that humans engage in a kind of cruelty "that is absence from the laws of nature". But I don't see how that can work. We should expect human behaviour, even if entirely derived from the laws of nature, to have features that aren't apparent when looking at the laws themselves -- just as, e.g., in Conway's "Game of Life" there are phenomena like gliders that aren't apparent from the almost-trivial rules of the game.)

Comment author: CCC 05 October 2015 08:45:21AM *  0 points [-]

"Free will" is an ambiguous term. The sort of free will you've argued for here could be paraphrased as "not being God's puppets", but I hope it's obvious that that can't be evidence of God's existence. But you listed "free will" as something you can explain with God better than without!

Ah, let me elaborate, then.

Whether God exists or not, one can postulate a universe in which people are puppets - philosophical zombies, moving and acting according to some purely deterministic set of rules.

In the atheistic universe, those behaviours may be at odds with one another, because the rules are not guided; they do not have an aim. They may optimise for some goal on the individual, or even the group level, but there is no reason why they should do so in an efficient manner; a puppet universe may include humans who oppose each other.

In the theistic universe, the presence of an omnipotent, omniscient being suggests that there is some purpose to the universe. If all people are puppets, then, it is to be expected that all people work tirelessly towards a single goal, without opposing each other.

Therefore, the observation that people oppose each other cannot be used to argue for free will in the atheistic universe, but can do so in the theistic universe.

I really don't think the fact that people sometimes do things a god should be expected to disapprove of can be evidence for that god's existence. Do you?

You've got it backwards. I'm not using it as evidence for God's existence; I'm using it as evidence for free will, given the existence of God as a postulate.

Comment author: entirelyuseless 30 September 2015 01:42:41PM 1 point [-]

Not seeing maliciousness in the laws of physics is a very weak argument for an afterlife, because even if there is no afterlife, that doesn't mean that God is malicious. It just means that he doesn't prevent things from working the way they do naturally, just like he doesn't prevent a lion from eating a man, or a man from hunting the lion.

Comment author: ChristianKl 30 September 2015 12:57:09PM 0 points [-]

So far, I have not found any. This implies that God is not into casual, petty cruelty without reason.

Does that mean the bible which assumes that God wiped out most of humanity with the flood is definitely wrong and to the extend that God exists it's not the God of the bible?

Comment author: CCC 05 October 2015 09:31:29AM *  1 point [-]

Does that mean the bible which assumes that God wiped out most of humanity with the flood is definitely wrong

No.

a) The existence of an afterlife would mean that those people were not destroyed. They had a really bad day and then woke up someplace else.

b) The story of the flood, in itself, may be a parable (by which I mean, a story intended to teach a lesson, usually of a moral or ethical nature, without necessarily being true) like the parable of the Good Samaritan, or the story of the Garden of Eden.

c) There may have been reason for the flood.

Any one of these alternatives could answer your question; personally, I think (b) is the most likely, though (a) and (c) are also possible.

Comment author: entirelyuseless 30 September 2015 02:15:03PM 1 point [-]

CCC already said that he thinks science is mostly right about the history of the universe, so presumably he does not believe such a flood ever happened.

Many Christians believe that such a flood never happened without thinking that the Bible is "definitely wrong" and without thinking that they believe in a God who is "not the God of the Bible."

Comment author: VoiceOfRa 01 October 2015 03:32:12AM -1 points [-]

You seem to have missed the "without reason" part.

Comment author: TheAncientGeek 05 October 2015 08:52:30AM 0 points [-]

he second pattern is, "I have known religious people who have fallen into this fallacy, this trap, this way of reasoning poorly, and have used it to support their claims". Again, this tells me nothing about whether or not God exists; it merely tells me that some people's arguments in favour of God's existence are flawed. It means nothing. I can give you a flawed argument for the proposition that 16/64 is equal to 1/4; the fact that my argument is flawed does not make 16/64 == 1/4 false.

That's called the "fallacy fallacy", BTW.

Comment author: entirelyuseless 29 September 2015 09:44:34PM -1 points [-]

I agree with you that Eliezer nowhere presents very strong arguments against religion, although he says some things that are relevant. Most likely he doesn't bother for the reasons given by gjm or similar reasons.

Still, that doesn't mean that there aren't any such arguments. For example, do you think that intelligent design in biology is false?

If so, consider what happens if you apply similar reasoning to the idea of revelation, i.e. that certain human claims are "truths descended from heaven".

Comment author: CCC 30 September 2015 08:00:47AM 1 point [-]

For example, do you think that intelligent design in biology is false?

I think that the universe was created, fourteen-and-a-bit billion years ago, with a set of natural laws so designed as to end up at a desired configuration. Exactly what that configuration is, or whether the universe has reached it yet, is a question that I cannot answer.

I strongly suspect, though there may be some element of bias in this suspicion, that the presence of intelligence is somehow important to that eventual desired configuration. I am very much not convinced that the shape of the body that that intelligence finds itself inhabiting is at all important.

I think it is highly probable that science (in general) is more right than wrong about what happened in those fourteen-and-a-bit billion years, and that the parts that are not completely right will be made more right and less wrong by future generations of scientists.

...I'm not quite sure what you mean by "intelligent design" - I have a vague idea only - but hopefully the above will answer your question.

If so, consider what happens if you apply similar reasoning to the idea of revelation, i.e. that certain human claims are "truths descended from heaven".

I think that some humans may claim revelations that they did not receive, possibly out of a desire for recognition.

Comment author: entirelyuseless 30 September 2015 01:23:36PM 0 points [-]

The question would by why you would give special weight to some specific claims of revelation (in particular), if you wouldn't give special weight to the claim that the bacterial flagellum (in particular) could not have evolved.

In other words, it is perfectly possible that some organs could not have evolved, and it is perfectly possible that some claims do not originate from human causes. But the problem is giving good enough reasons for accepting that in a particular case. "It looks like it couldn't have evolved," or "It looks like it didn't have human sources" are not good enough.

Comment author: CCC 05 October 2015 09:25:59AM 0 points [-]

...what does the bacterial flagellum have to do with anything? I think I am missing some important context here.

But the problem is giving good enough reasons for accepting that in a particular case. "It looks like it couldn't have evolved," or "It looks like it didn't have human sources" are not good enough.

Well, the simplest argument for accepting some revelations would be that later events, unknown and unknowable at the time of the revelation, were later shown to be true (for example, predicting the time and place of a volcanic eruption or other natural disaster)

Comment author: entirelyuseless 05 October 2015 01:38:51PM 1 point [-]

Michael Behe has used the bacterial flagellum as an example of something in biology which he supposes must have been directly designed and not evolved.

I don't know of any examples of detailed predictions of the future where the 1) it is clearly established that the prediction was actually made before the thing happened; 2) it is clearly established that the thing happened as stated; 3) the thing has a substantial degree of unknowable detail. Regarding the third, I mean more detail than things like, "I will die on May 3, 2020." It would be quite surprising if this turns out to be true, but not surprising enough to prove that I have some special source of knowledge, given the total number of predictions that are made by someone or other.

Given that you can satisfy all three conditions, I agree that this would be a good reason to suppose that someone has some special source of knowledge. That won't make it easy for you to know which of his opinions are influenced by that source, unless you know exactly what the source is and how it affects his opinions in particular. So it still won't easily give you a reason to accept particular revelations.

Comment author: CCC 06 October 2015 09:43:43AM 0 points [-]

...a few minutes on Google suggests that biologists have by now worked out a few plausible ways in which a bacterial flagellum might have evolved. This seems reasonable to me; I assume that the biologists are competent and know their field.

I don't know of any examples of detailed predictions of the future where the 1) it is clearly established that the prediction was actually made before the thing happened; 2) it is clearly established that the thing happened as stated; 3) the thing has a substantial degree of unknowable detail.

...I can think of a few biblical examples, but given the length of time between then and now (and how much even recent eyewitness accounts can be distorted) I can also see how all those examples would probably fail on point (2) at the very least. (I think I can probably find examples that pass on points (1) and (3), at least).

Comment author: gjm 05 October 2015 01:32:33PM 1 point [-]

"The" bacterial flagellum (actually there are different kinds and I think only one kind is relevant here) was a leading example used by proponents of "intelligent design", who claimed it was a complex system that couldn't possibly have evolved incrementally.

Comment author: CCC 06 October 2015 09:45:17AM 0 points [-]

Thanks. A brief googling suggests that biologists have figured out how it could have evolved from similar organs with different functions, which seems to neatly solve the issue.

Comment author: entirelyuseless 29 September 2015 12:49:17PM 0 points [-]

It would actually be pretty easy to transform all of the anti-religious material into e.g. anti-ufos as aliens material. Or if it would sound silly to constantly bring up the same example, alternate between similar cases.

Comment author: gjm 29 September 2015 01:29:19PM 0 points [-]

I'm not so sure. Some of the anti-religious stuff is specifically concerned with Eliezer's upbringing, and so far as I know he wasn't brought up to believe aliens are visiting earth. Some of it is concerned with the fact that religious belief is widespread among (otherwise) reasonable people, which isn't so true of UFO theories. I would guess that most of what could be replaced with material about UFOs could about equally well just be removed; it's the rest that's difficult.

Comment author: entirelyuseless 29 September 2015 01:57:21PM -1 points [-]

You're probably right about the personal material, although I suspect you could make the theoretical points in another way. But it wouldn't be a matter of easily substituting one thing for another.

One could make the points about religious beliefs relative to rationality without directly asserting that all religious beliefs are false, simply because it is obvious for simple logical reasons that the majority of such beliefs are false (because opposed religious beliefs cannot both be true), and even religious people will grant that this is the case. And the majority of such beliefs being false means that if you actually want to know the truth, you need to take a lot more care about such things than most people do, whether or not any religious beliefs are actually true.

The same general point is actually true about anti-religious beliefs as well, and this may be one reason why that wouldn't be a book Eliezer could have written. For example, he said that he would rather push a button that would destroy the world if God exists, than a button that had a known probability of one in a billion of destroying the world.

It seems to me more reasonable to believe that Mohammed or Joseph Smith was a prophet from God, than to push that "destroy the world if God exists" button. In other words, Eliezer's personal beliefs are unreasonable in a similar way, just in an opposite direction.

Comment author: gjm 29 September 2015 02:14:27PM 0 points [-]

I suspect (but don't know) that a lot of religious people would be almost as upset at "most religious claims are false" as "your specific religious claims are false" even though, as you say, the former is almost a triviality. I also suspect that many would fall back on claims along the following lines: "Yes, superficially my beliefs and my Muslim neighbour's beliefs contradict one another. But we are fully agreed on the existence of God, and perhaps we are just seeing the same thing from different angles." -- and then they would not be willing to agree that most people's beliefs on religious topics are wrong.

I think I agree with you rather than Eliezer on the probability-of-God question, but the answer might well depend a lot on what range of possibilities we count as making "God exists" true.

Comment author: entirelyuseless 30 September 2015 03:06:56PM 0 points [-]

I don't think I've heard this particular response within my social circle, but I wouldn't be too surprised to hear it from others. And in any case I do hear things which amount to, "That may be technically true, but saying it is suggesting that my religion is likely false, and implying that is really bad."

In that sense I agree that religious beliefs tend to make people have a hard time even with general abstract truths about rationality, at least as soon as they realize the implications for their beliefs.

Comment author: Zubon 25 September 2015 12:29:31PM 0 points [-]

I am not saying we should discard our intuitions about relative outrage, but we ought to look at them more closely rather than just riding them to a quick conclusion.

Tyler Cowen, "Just How Guilty Is Volkswagon?"

Comment author: Luke_A_Somers 25 September 2015 06:58:19PM 0 points [-]

For reference, the notions of relative outrage are between deliberate and accidental harm, and in particular that as the magnitude of the problem grows, it makes less and less difference.

Also, how does a post with 0 votes end up lower on the page under the 'best' criterion than a post at -8 points????

Comment author: WalterL 02 September 2015 05:59:00PM *  -1 points [-]

Edit: Gah, missed that this was a dupe of 2013. Felt so original too...

Comment author: Lumifer 02 September 2015 06:17:14PM 0 points [-]