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Excluding the Supernatural

30 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 12 September 2008 12:12AM

Followup toReductionism, Anthropomorphic Optimism

Occasionally, you hear someone claiming that creationism should not be taught in schools, especially not as a competing hypothesis to evolution, because creationism is a priori and automatically excluded from scientific consideration, in that it invokes the "supernatural".

So... is the idea here, that creationism could be true, but even if it were true, you wouldn't be allowed to teach it in science class, because science is only about "natural" things?

It seems clear enough that this notion stems from the desire to avoid a confrontation between science and religion.  You don't want to come right out and say that science doesn't teach Religious Claim X because X has been tested by the scientific method and found false.  So instead, you can... um... claim that science is excluding hypothesis X a priori.  That way you don't have to discuss how experiment has falsified X a posteriori.

Of course this plays right into the creationist claim that Intelligent Design isn't getting a fair shake from science—that science has prejudged the issue in favor of atheism, regardless of the evidence.  If science excluded Intelligent Design a priori, this would be a justified complaint!

But let's back up a moment.  The one comes to you and says:  "Intelligent Design is excluded from being science a priori, because it is 'supernatural', and science only deals in 'natural' explanations."

What exactly do they mean, "supernatural"?  Is any explanation invented by someone with the last name "Cohen" a supernatural one?  If we're going to summarily kick a set of hypotheses out of science, what is it that we're supposed to exclude?

By far the best definition I've ever heard of the supernatural is Richard Carrier's:  A "supernatural" explanation appeals to ontologically basic mental things, mental entities that cannot be reduced to nonmental entities.

This is the difference, for example, between saying that water rolls downhill because it wants to be lower, and setting forth differential equations that claim to describe only motions, not desires.  It's the difference between saying that a tree puts forth leaves because of a tree spirit, versus examining plant biochemistry.  Cognitive science takes the fight against supernaturalism into the realm of the mind.

Why is this an excellent definition of the supernatural?  I refer you to Richard Carrier for the full argument.  But consider:  Suppose that you discover what seems to be a spirit, inhabiting a tree: a dryad who can materialize outside or inside the tree, who speaks in English about the need to protect her tree, et cetera.  And then suppose that we turn a microscope on this tree spirit, and she turns out to be made of parts—not inherently spiritual and ineffable parts, like fabric of desireness and cloth of belief; but rather the same sort of parts as quarks and electrons, parts whose behavior is defined in motions rather than minds.  Wouldn't the dryad immediately be demoted to the dull catalogue of common things?

But if we accept Richard Carrier's definition of the supernatural, then a dilemma arises: we want to give religious claims a fair shake, but it seems that we have very good grounds for excluding supernatural explanations a priori.

I mean, what would the universe look like if reductionism were false?

I previously defined the reductionist thesis as follows: human minds create multi-level models of reality in which high-level patterns and low-level patterns are separately and explicitly represented.  A physicist knows Newton's equation for gravity, Einstein's equation for gravity, and the derivation of the former as a low-speed approximation of the latter.  But these three separate mental representations, are only a convenience of human cognition.  It is not that reality itself has an Einstein equation that governs at high speeds, a Newton equation that governs at low speeds, and a "bridging law" that smooths the interface.  Reality itself has only a single level, Einsteinian gravity.  It is only the Mind Projection Fallacy that makes some people talk as if the higher levels could have a separate existence—different levels of organization can have separate representations in human maps, but the territory itself is a single unified low-level mathematical object.

Suppose this were wrong.

Suppose that the Mind Projection Fallacy was not a fallacy, but simply true.

Suppose that a 747 had a fundamental physical existence apart from the quarks making up the 747.

What experimental observations would you expect to make, if you found yourself in such a universe?

If you can't come up with a good answer to that, it's not observation that's ruling out "non-reductionist" beliefs, but a priori logical incoherence.  If you can't say what predictions the "non-reductionist" model makes, how can you say that experimental evidence rules it out?

My thesis is that non-reductionism is a confusion; and once you realize that an idea is a confusion, it becomes a tad difficult to envision what the universe would look like if the confusion were true.  Maybe I've got some multi-level model of the world, and the multi-level model has a one-to-one direct correspondence with the causal elements of the physics?  But once all the rules are specified, why wouldn't the model just flatten out into yet another list of fundamental things and their interactions?  Does everything I can see in the model, like a 747 or a human mind, have to become a separate real thing?  But what if I see a pattern in that new supersystem?

Supernaturalism is a special case of non-reductionism, where it is not 747s that are irreducible, but just (some) mental things.  Religion is a special case of supernaturalism, where the irreducible mental things are God(s) and souls; and perhaps also sins, angels, karma, etc.

If I propose the existence of a powerful entity with the ability to survey and alter each element of our observed universe, but with the entity reducible to nonmental parts that interact with the elements of our universe in a lawful way; if I propose that this entity wants certain particular things, but "wants" using a brain composed of particles and fields; then this is not yet a religion, just a naturalistic hypothesis about a naturalistic Matrix.  If tomorrow the clouds parted and a vast glowing amorphous figure thundered forth the above description of reality, then this would not imply that the figure was necessarily honest; but I would show the movies in a science class, and I would try to derive testable predictions from the theory.

Conversely, religions have ignored the discovery of that ancient bodiless thing: omnipresent in the working of Nature and immanent in every falling leaf: vast as a planet's surface and billions of years old: itself unmade and arising from the structure of physics: designing without brain to shape all life on Earth and the minds of humanity.  Natural selection, when Darwin proposed it, was not hailed as the long-awaited Creator:  It wasn't fundamentally mental.

But now we get to the dilemma: if the staid conventional normal boring understanding of physics and the brain is correct, there's no way in principle that a human being can concretely envision, and derive testable experimental predictions about, an alternate universe in which things are irreducibly mental.  Because, if the boring old normal model is correct, your brain is made of quarks, and so your brain will only be able to envision and concretely predict things that can predicted by quarks.  You will only ever be able to construct models made of interacting simple things.

People who live in reductionist universes cannot concretely envision non-reductionist universes.  They can pronounce the syllables "non-reductionist" but they can't imagine it.

The basic error of anthropomorphism, and the reason why supernatural explanations sound much simpler than they really are, is your brain using itself as an opaque black box to predict other things labeled "mindful".  Because you already have big, complicated webs of neural circuitry that implement your "wanting" things, it seems like you can easily describe water that "wants" to flow downhill—the one word "want" acts as a lever to set your own complicated wanting-machinery in motion.

Or you imagine that God likes beautiful things, and therefore made the flowers.  Your own "beauty" circuitry determines what is "beautiful" and "not beautiful".  But you don't know the diagram of your own synapses.  You can't describe a nonmental system that computes the same label for what is "beautiful" or "not beautiful"—can't write a computer program that predicts your own labelings.  But this is just a defect of knowledge on your part; it doesn't mean that the brain has no explanation.

If the "boring view" of reality is correct, then you can never predict anything irreducible because you are reducible.  You can never get Bayesian confirmation for a hypothesis of irreducibility, because any prediction you can make is, therefore, something that could also be predicted by a reducible thing, namely your brain.

Some boxes you really can't think outside.  If our universe really is Turing computable, we will never be able to concretely envision anything that isn't Turing-computable—no matter how many levels of halting oracle hierarchy our mathematicians can talk about, we won't be able to predict what a halting oracle would actually say, in such fashion as to experimentally discriminate it from merely computable reasoning.

Of course, that's all assuming the "boring view" is correct.  To the extent that you believe evolution is true, you should not expect to encounter strong evidence against evolution.  To the extent you believe reductionism is true, you should expect non-reductionist hypotheses to be incoherent as well as wrong.  To the extent you believe supernaturalism is false, you should expect it to be inconceivable as well.

If, on the other hand, a supernatural hypothesis turns out to be true, then presumably you will also discover that it is not inconceivable.

So let us bring this back full circle to the matter of Intelligent Design:

Should ID be excluded a priori from experimental falsification and science classrooms, because, by invoking the supernatural, it has placed itself outside of natural philosophy?

I answer:  "Of course not."  The irreducibility of the intelligent designer is not an indispensable part of the ID hypothesis.  For every irreducible God that can be proposed by the IDers, there exists a corresponding reducible alien that behaves in accordance with the same predictions—since the IDers themselves are reducible; to the extent I believe reductionism is in fact correct, which is a rather strong extent, I must expect to discover reducible formulations of all supposedly supernatural predictive models.

If we're going over the archeological records to test the assertion that Jehovah parted the Red Sea out of an explicit desire to display its superhuman power, then it makes little difference whether Jehovah is ontologically basic, or an alien with nanotech, or a Dark Lord of the Matrix.  You do some archeology, find no skeletal remnants or armor at the Red Sea site, and indeed find records that Egypt ruled much of Canaan at the time.  So you stamp the historical record in the Bible "disproven" and carry on.  The hypothesis is coherent, falsifiable and wrong.

Likewise with the evidence from biology that foxes are designed to chase rabbits, rabbits are designed to evade foxes, and neither is designed "to carry on their species" or "protect the harmony of Nature"; likewise with the retina being designed backwards with the light-sensitive parts at the bottom; and so on through a thousand other items of evidence for splintered, immoral, incompetent design.  The Jehovah model of our alien god is coherent, falsifiable, and wrong—coherent, that is, so long as you don't care whether Jehovah is ontologically basic or just an alien.

Just convert the supernatural hypothesis into the corresponding natural hypothesis.  Just make the same predictions the same way, without asserting any mental things to be ontologically basic.  Consult your brain's black box if necessary to make predictions—say, if you want to talk about an "angry god" without building a full-fledged angry AI to label behaviors as angry or not angry.  So you derive the predictions, or look up the predictions made by ancient theologians without advance knowledge of our experimental results.  If experiment conflicts with those predictions, then it is fair to speak of the religious claim having been scientifically refuted.  It was given its just chance at confirmation; it is being excluded a posteriori, not a priori.

Ultimately, reductionism is just disbelief in fundamentally complicated things.  If "fundamentally complicated" sounds like an oxymoron... well, that's why I think that the doctrine of non-reductionism is a confusion, rather than a way that things could be, but aren't.  You would be wise to be wary, if you find yourself supposing such things.

But the ultimate rule of science is to look and see.  If ever a God appeared to thunder upon the mountains, it would be something that people looked at and saw.

Corollary:  Any supposed designer of Artificial General Intelligence who talks about religious beliefs in respectful tones, is clearly not an expert on reducing mental things to nonmental things; and indeed knows so very little of the uttermost basics, as for it to be scarcely plausible that they could be expert at the art; unless their idiot savancy is complete.  Or, of course, if they're outright lying.  We're not talking about a subtle mistake.

 

Part of the sequence Reductionism

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Comments (119)

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Comment author: Nominull3 12 September 2008 01:12:39AM 1 point [-]

It seems like you should be able to make experimental predictions about irreducible things. Take a quark, or a gluon, or the Grand Quantum Lifestream, or whatever reality is at the bottom, I don't really follow physics closely. In any case, you can make predictions about those things, and that's part and parcel of making predictions about airplanes and grizzly bears.

Even if it turns out that the Grand Quantum Lifestream is reducible further, you can make predictions about its components. Unless you think everything is infinitely reducible, but that proposition strikes me as unlikely.

Well, maybe the fundamental basis of reality is like a fractal. I wouldn't want to rule that out without thinking about it. But in any case it doesn't sound like what you're arguing.

Comment author: Phil_Goetz5 12 September 2008 01:29:26AM 18 points [-]

I had a similar, shorter conversation with a theologian. He had hired me to critique a book he was writing, which claimed that reductionist science had reached its limits, and that it was time to turn to non-reductionist science.

The examples he gave were all phenomena which science had difficulty explaining, and which he claimed to explain as being irreducibly complex. For instance, because people had difficulty explaining how cells migrate in a developing fetus, he suggested (as Aristotle might have) that the cells had an innate fate or desire that led them to the right location.

What he really meant by non-reductionist science, was that as a "non-reductionist scientist", one is allowed to throw up one's hands, and say that there is no explanation for something. A claim that a phenomenon is supernatural is always the assertion that something has no explanation. (I don't know that it needs to be presented as a mental phenomenon, as Eliezer says.) So to "do" non-reductionist science is simply to not do science.

It should be possible, then, for a religious person to rightly claim that their point of view is outside the realm of science. If they said, for instance, that lightning is a spirit, that is not a testable hypothesis.

In practice, religions build up webs of claims, and of connections to the non-spiritual world, that can be tested for consistency. If someone claims not just that lightning is a spirit, but that an anthropomorphic God casts lightning bolts at sinners, that is a testable hypothesis. Once, when I was a Christian, lightning struck the cross behind my church. This struck me as strong empirical evidence against the idea that God directed every bolt. (I suppose one could interpret it as divine criticism of the church. The church elders did not, however, pursue that angle.)

Comment author: buybuydandavis 27 October 2011 08:15:15AM -2 points [-]

What he really meant by non-reductionist science, was that as a "non-reductionist scientist", one is allowed to throw up one's hands, and say that there is no explanation for something.

No. Good scientists say that there are no current explanations all the time. The non-reductionist claims to know that there can't ever be an explanation. That's the opposite of throwing up your hands and saying you don't have an explanation. That's a claim to know that all possible explanations will fail.

Comment author: Grognor 01 December 2011 10:10:11PM *  4 points [-]

What he really meant by non-reductionist science, was that as a "non-reductionist scientist", one is allowed to throw up one's hands, and say that there is no explanation for something.

beat

No. Good scientists say that there are no current explanations all the time. The non-reductionist claims to know that there can't ever be an explanation. That's the opposite of throwing up your hands and saying you don't have an explanation. That's a claim to know that all possible explanations will fail.

You tried to make a contradiction, but you ended up saying exactly the same thing. "There is no explanation," means no explanation exists, which is the nonsense position that Phil attacked three years ago. "We don't have an explanation yet," is entirely sensible, of course, which is why that position has never been attacked by anyone, ever.

Comment author: buybuydandavis 03 December 2011 06:27:12AM *  0 points [-]

No explanation exists for why there is lint in my belly button. No one has explained it, even to themselves. Now, if we think about it, we may come up with an explanation, but that doesn't mean the explanation exists now, anymore than a house we might build exists now because we might build it.

No explanation exists for X <> there can never be an explanation for X.

Comment author: nshepperd 03 December 2011 11:55:13AM 10 points [-]

I have a feeling "no explanation exists" was meant in the mathematical sense of "exists". Which means exactly that there is no possible string of characters that is an explanation for X.

Comment author: Phil_Goetz5 12 September 2008 01:45:51AM 17 points [-]

Once, in a LARP, I played Isaac Asimov on a panel which was arguing whether vampires were real. It went something like this (modulo my memory): I asked the audience to define "vampire", and they said that vampires were creatures that lived by drinking blood.

I said that mosquitoes were vampires. So they said that vampires were humanoids who lived by drinking blood.

I said that Masai who drank the blood of their cattle were vampires. So they said that vampires were humanoids who lived by drinking blood, and were burned by sunlight.

I (may have) said that a Masai with xeroderma pigmentosum was a vampire. And so on.

My point was that vampires were by definition not real - or at least, not understandable - because any time we found something real and understandable that met the definition of a vampire, we would change the definition to exclude it.

(Strangely, some mythical creatures, such as vampires and unicorns, seem to be defined in a spiritual way; whereas others, such as mermaids and centaurs, do not. A horse genetically engineered to grow a horn would probably not be thought of as a "real" unicorn; a genenged mermaid probably would be admitted to be a "real" mermaid.)

Comment author: buybuydandavis 27 October 2011 08:18:16AM 3 points [-]

My point was that vampires were by definition not real - or at least, not understandable - because any time we found something real and understandable that met the definition of a vampire, we would change the definition to exclude it.

Daniel Dennett has a cute one like this. Real Magic (the kind in Vegas) is not Real Magic (Abracadabra shazam poof!).

Comment author: dlthomas 19 December 2011 05:55:00PM 2 points [-]

I think my first encounter with this was James Randi, which makes a lot of sense. I don't know if it was originally his, either, though.

Comment author: buybuydandavis 25 August 2012 10:39:50PM 4 points [-]

Found the quote the other day. Makes sense that Randi knew it too. Apparently Siegel was a magician and professor too, who wrote a book on Indian magic.

youtube, Free Will as Moral Competence, Daniel Dennett at the University of Melbourne, Australia, 15:21 Dennett quotes from "Net of Magic", by Lee Siegel

Quote from book: "I'm writing a book on magic, " I explain, and I'm asked, "Real magic?" By real magic people mean miracles, thaumaturgical acts, and supernatural powers. "No, " I answer: "Conjuring tricks, not real magic."

Dennett: Real magic, in other words, refers to the magic that is not real, while the magic that is real, that can actually be done, is not real magic.

Comment author: army1987 26 August 2012 10:36:17PM 2 points [-]

Dennett: Real magic, in other words, refers to the magic that is not real, while the magic that is real, that can actually be done, is not real magic.

That's the same quirk in natural language by which a heavy drinker is not usually a drinker who weighs a lot. (<Adjective> <noun> can mean ‘a <noun> who/which is <adjective>’, or ‘someone/something who/which is <adjective>ly a <noun>’.)

Comment author: Alicorn 26 August 2012 10:39:45PM 0 points [-]

Thank you for articulating my problem with the "real magic" quote.

Comment author: shminux 26 August 2012 11:11:16PM *  -2 points [-]

Surely real magic is done through yet-unknown means. It might stop being magical some day, once explained (reduced), in compliance with Clarke's 3rd law.

Comment author: army1987 18 December 2011 11:15:08PM 3 points [-]

(Strangely, some mythical creatures, such as vampires and unicorns, seem to be defined in a spiritual way; whereas others, such as mermaids and centaurs, do not. A horse genetically engineered to grow a horn would probably not be thought of as a "real" unicorn; a genenged mermaid probably would be admitted to be a "real" mermaid.)

Dunno if it's because I'm not a native English speaker, but my intuition about the words unicorn and mermaid doesn't agree (whereas it does agree e.g. with Gettier about the precise meaning of knowledge, and most other similar problems about precise meanings of words).

Comment author: Prismattic 19 December 2011 01:39:36AM 3 points [-]

I am a native English speaker, and I don't agree with the quoted passage either.

Comment author: Vaniver 19 December 2011 03:15:14AM *  10 points [-]

I think this depends a lot on your exposure to centaur and unicorn myths. Both creatures were imagined in Greece; the centaur was just a mashup of man and horse, and the unicorn was just a kind of horned donkey found in faraway places. Thus, if you slapped a horn on some donkeys (or just found an oryx) you'd have a Greek unicorn.

But in medieval Europe, the unicorn became a symbol of purity, able to cure diseases and drawn to virgins. Oryxes can't cure diseases and aren't drawn to (human) virgins, which to a large extent is the point of a unicorn (to someone who adopts the medieval European imagination of unicorns).

Comment author: army1987 19 December 2011 11:44:25AM 1 point [-]

Yeah, that must be the reason. I'm not familiar with mediaeval myths about unicorns, so it means pretty much “a horse with a horn” (but I wouldn't count an oryx as one -- the uni- part means it has to only have one horn, doesn't it :-)), but on the other hand I know about the myth of the mermaids' singing (and Ulysses's strategy to cope with it) so I wouldn't count the top half of a woman glued onto the bottom half of a fish as one.

Comment author: Vaniver 19 December 2011 05:09:56PM *  3 points [-]

Interestingly, mermaid myths may have been deliberate hoaxes, which makes the question of a "real" mermaid even muddier.

I'm not sure how Ctesias or Aristotle would react to seeing an oryx- they might decide it's a new duoceros different from monoceri or they might say "oops, I guess we only saw depictions of monoceri in profile, they actually have two horns."

Comment author: ArisKatsaris 19 December 2011 05:16:41PM 8 points [-]

but on the other hand I know about the myth of the mermaids' singing (and Ulysses's strategy to cope with it

A nitpick: The Odyssey had sirens singing, not mermaids -- and those were half-bird women, not half-fish women. See how they were depicted in ancient times

Comment author: Alejandro1 19 December 2011 06:07:46PM 4 points [-]

In Spanish (and presumably also in whichever language is army's native tongue, if it is not Spanish) the word 'sirena' is used for both siren and mermaid, hence the confusion.

Comment author: army1987 21 January 2012 10:00:10AM 1 point [-]

Yes, it's Italian.

Comment author: DSimon 19 December 2011 03:32:22AM 1 point [-]

How about: Vampires are humanoids that can sustain themselves only by drinking blood? That excludes blood-drinking when done occasionally or as a cultural practice.

Comment author: MinibearRex 19 December 2011 04:11:14AM 0 points [-]

What about a human with altered biochemistry, such that they could synthesize all needed biological materials from compounds found in blood? Is that a vampire?

Comment author: dlthomas 19 December 2011 05:58:09PM 0 points [-]

"Only by", not "by only".

Comment author: MinibearRex 20 December 2011 07:36:13AM 0 points [-]

Fine. Humans that are incapable of metabolizing anything other than hemoglobin. Does that count?

Comment author: dlthomas 20 December 2011 03:41:27PM 2 points [-]

I'd call them a vampire, but it'd be partly in jest. DSimon's below would give me even less pause, and with a fuller list it seems to become entirely uncontroversial.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 19 December 2011 04:18:39AM 1 point [-]

If it turned out that there was a rare degenerative illness that prevented sufferers from absorbing nutrition from any source other than blood, would you agree that sufferers of that illness were vampires?

Comment author: DSimon 19 December 2011 04:46:11AM *  0 points [-]

Ack. Okay, I guess I have no choice but to add yet another qualifier. :-)

How about: Vampires are very long-lived humanoids that derive their longevity from drinking blood. I can't think of a mundane example that fits that description. Which I suppose was Phil's original point: the only useful definition of "vampire" is one which excludes everything that could plausibly exist.

Comment author: Peter_de_Blanc 19 December 2011 03:39:41AM 2 points [-]

My point was that vampires were by definition not real

So according to you, a mosquito that isn't real is a vampire?

Comment author: MinibearRex 19 December 2011 04:09:47AM 0 points [-]

His point is that: P(not real | vampire) ~= 1, which is not the same as: "vampire = not real". It's an if-then relationship, not a logical equivalency.

Comment author: Peter_de_Blanc 19 December 2011 04:45:06AM *  3 points [-]

I understand that Phil was not suggesting that all non-real things are vampires. That's why my example was a mosquito that isn't real, rather than, say, a Toyota that isn't real.

Comment author: MinibearRex 19 December 2011 05:23:27AM -1 points [-]

But there's nothing particularly special about a mosquito. It's still an incorrect application of modus tollens. We have: If something is a vampire, then it is not real. From this, we can infer (from modus tollens) that if something is real, then it is not a vampire. Thus, if a certain mosquito is real, it is not a vampire. However, there is nothing here that justifies the belief that if a certain mosquito is imaginary, then it is a vampire.

Comment author: Peter_de_Blanc 19 December 2011 09:29:40AM 1 point [-]

What's special about a mosquito is that it drinks blood.

Phil originally said this:

My point was that vampires were by definition not real - or at least, not understandable - because any time we found something real and understandable that met the definition of a vampire, we would change the definition to exclude it.

Note Phil's use of the word "because" here. Phil is claiming that if vampires weren't unreal-by-definition, then the audience would not have changed their definition whenever provided with a real example of a vampire as defined. It follows that the original definition would have been acceptable had it been augmented with the "not-real" requirement, and so this is the claim I was responding to with the unreal mosquito example.

Comment author: MinibearRex 20 December 2011 07:08:37AM 0 points [-]

Ah. That makes more sense.

Comment author: wedrifid 19 December 2011 06:20:39AM *  25 points [-]

My point was that vampires were by definition not real - or at least, not understandable - because any time we found something real and understandable that met the definition of a vampire, we would change the definition to exclude it.

Nonsense. If there was a creature that:

  • Used to be a normal living human
  • Still looks human
  • Has the same internal organs but none of them are functioning
  • Isn't vulnerable to hemlock
  • Has more strength than could plausibly attributed to humans according to our understanding of genetics
  • Has teeth which extend to fangs and then retract.
  • Can only be sustained by blood.
  • Definitely doesn't glitter. Ever.
  • Physically cannot enter people's houses due to physical restraint that seems to be only operating on the creature. Exception - can enter people's houses if invited.
  • Starts behaving like the human that they used to be except with extreme sociopathic and homicidal tendencies.
  • Is unaffected by getting stabbed in the chest by anything but a wooden stake. (Wooden stake kills him.)
  • Burns when exposed to sunlight, holy water or religious symbols.
  • Instantly turns to dust when staked, decapitated or sufficiently burnt via the aforementioned causes.

... then basically everyone would agree it was a vampire. LARPy Asimov is just being annoying when he tries to spin the question about the universe into a question about semantics.

Comment author: dlthomas 19 December 2011 06:02:12PM 0 points [-]
  • Definitely doesn't glitter. Ever.

... then basically everyone would agree it was a vampire.

Except some Twilight fans.

Comment author: JoshuaZ 19 December 2011 04:54:21PM 2 points [-]

The key issue seems to not be the fiction but that the elements creating your "vampire" are separate. Your Masai with xeroderma pigmentosum has vampiric properties because of distinct separate events. If there were say a single virus that made people both have a similar light aversion and made them desire blood, I don't think most people would have a problem calling them vampires.

Comment author: army1987 19 December 2011 05:35:34PM 1 point [-]

Indeed, I would not object to being called a vampire if I had porphyria. (I was going to write “call someone a vampire if they have”, but I realize they might conceivably find it offensive.)

Comment author: Chris5 12 September 2008 02:20:56AM 8 points [-]

Phil: Vampires ARE real. Both humans and animals can become vampires after being bitten by another vampire (very often a bat or racoon). After being bitten, they will go crazy and attempt to bite others. They also are unable to cross running water.

The virus has been discovered, and a vaccine exists.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rabies

Yeah, I know, those aren't "real" vampires, even though that is very likely the source of the vampire mythology.

Comment author: mtraven 12 September 2008 02:29:24AM 3 points [-]

Of course water flows downhill because it wants to be lower. It just is not in its nature to be able to want anything else, which distinguishes it from more flexible want-systems like ourselves.

As to the supernatural, I suggest a useful analogy is mathematical objects, like 5, pi, the complex plane, or the Pythagorean theorem. These objects are not physical; they are not made of quarks nor reducible to them, even though any concrete instantiation of them (or instantiation of a thought about them) must involve some physical process; they are non-natural even though they pervade nature. Nobody here would deny the right of mathematicians to be pragmatic Platonists who treat mathematical objects as real things that they can think about and perform mental manipulations on. By analogy, I would at least consider the possibility that theologians have a similar right to make statements about their non-physical, non-natural object of study.

Comment author: Perplexed 02 August 2010 02:56:41PM 4 points [-]

Pure theology is relatively harmless. It's when they start doing applied theology that I wish they would get someone competent to check their calculations.

Comment author: Kenny 22 May 2013 12:01:16PM 1 point [-]

Funny that you use mathematics as an analogy to something being argued as irreducible, as mathematics is all reducible to fundamentally simple components. And one could even argue that mathematics is 'reducible' to simple physical systems; it's not like you're claiming that every other non-ontologically-fundamental concept or category is Platonically supernatural. What makes the patterns of mathematics special?

Comment author: Z._M._Davis 12 September 2008 02:34:03AM 11 points [-]

"My thesis is that non-reductionism is a confusion; and once you realize that an idea is a confusion, it becomes a tad difficult to envision what the universe would look like if the confusion were true."

I still seem to be able to envision what things would look like if a form of Cartesian dualism were true. Our ordinary laws of physics would govern all matter except one or more places deep in the brain, where the laws of physics would be violated where the soul is "pulling the strings" of the body, as it were. These deviations from physics would not happen unlawfully, but rather would be governed by special, complicated laws of psychology, rather than physics. In principle, this should be testable.

Unlawfulness and nonreductionism are distinct concepts; I can see how the former is incoherent, but the latter still seems logically possible, if false.

Comment author: Kenny 22 May 2013 05:37:46PM *  2 points [-]

I personally can't imagine anything fundamentally complicated. I guess I could imagine tho that something might be a black box with complicated behavior, i.e. something complicated but with no parts that could be analyzed separately (because we can't open the box for whatever reason). But if this something was lawful, we could still analyze the various components of the laws that governed its behavior, e.g. "hmmm ... when we isolate the influence of x, the measurement of the output of the black box seems to correspond roughly to an exponential function of the measurement of x ...".

I don't think lawful and reducible are entirely (or even a little) independent. Really, I'm struggling to think of an example where 'lawful' doesn't mean 'reducible'.

Comment author: Constant2 12 September 2008 02:39:54AM 33 points [-]

My point was that vampires were by definition not real - or at least, not understandable - because any time we found something real and understandable that met the definition of a vampire, we would change the definition to exclude it.

But the same exchange might have occurred with something entirely real. We are not in the habit of giving fully adequate definitions, so it is often possible to find counterexamples to the definitions we give, which might prompt the other person to add to the definition to exclude the counterexample. For example:

A: What is a dog?

B: A dog is a four-footed animal that is a popular pet.

A: So a cat is a dog.

B: Dogs bark.

A: So if I teach a cat to bark, it will become a dog.

etc.

Comment author: Aaron6 12 September 2008 03:12:44AM 3 points [-]

Constant: with dogs, you can point to examples and say "these animals, and animals closely related to these are dogs".

Comment author: SecondWind 17 April 2013 06:34:55AM 2 points [-]

...whereas with vampires, you're stuck pointing to a collection of fictional representations. This restricts certain information-gathering techniques (you can't put a vampire under a microscope; at best, you can use a fictional account of a vampire under a microscope) but shouldn't make the exercise impossible. I'm pretty sure we could convey 'stop sign' without ever letting you observe a real-life stop sign.

Comment author: Stu 12 September 2008 04:24:09AM 0 points [-]

I think it comes down to the fact that, if you want to understand the universe around us, the scientific method is consistently successful and supernaturalism is consistently a failure.

If you want to actually prove that scientific method is better, it's very hard to do without reasoning with the scientific method itself, which would be circular logic and thus inconsistent with the scientific method.

So let's just say that, I like to know how the universe works, and if any form of supernaturalism were the best way of doing that, then I would use it. Instead I use the scientific method, because that is what works.

Supernaturalism has other uses, but they are not uses that I subscribe to.

Comment author: Tiiba2 12 September 2008 04:25:45AM 15 points [-]

Okay, so here's a dryad. You cut her open, and see white stuff. You take a sample, put it under a microscope, and still see white stuff. You use a scanning tunneling microscope, and still see white stuff. You build an AI and tell it to analyze the sample. The AI converts galaxies into computronium and microscopium, conducts every experiment it can think of, and after a trillion years reports: "The dryad is made of white stuff, and that's all I know. Screw this runaround, what's for dinner?"

But using an outside view of sorts (observed behavior), you can still predict what the dryad will do next. Just like with quarks and with Occam's razor and with prime numbers. And things you haven't reduced yet, but think you can, like people or the LHC.

So, what would you call this dryad?

Comment author: Luke_A_Somers 26 August 2012 03:41:48AM 7 points [-]

If you look at it in an STM, you aren't going to be able to see white stuff, because that isn't sensitive to color. But since you were able to image it at all instead of crashing your tip, you can also tell that dryad insides are electrically conductive. We should be able to determine the resistivity of dryad, as a function of gate voltage, impurity density, magnetic field, etc.

No matter what the result is, we now know more about dryad stuff.

So I'd suggest that they be insulating instead, as that closes off all those transport experiments.

Comment author: Benito 17 December 2012 08:27:22PM 1 point [-]

If it's causally connected to the physical world, we can test exactly what force(s) it gives out upon other things. We can test how it reflects photons, and all sorts of other things. It would, in the end, have all the physical qualities we attribute to things in this universe, and then it would no longer be mysterious. If it affects us, we can measure that effect.

As to your question, what would I call it?

I'd probably call it a 'dryad'.

Comment author: MugaSofer 17 December 2012 08:39:27PM -1 points [-]

Well, it's effects might not be mysterious, but it's nature would be.

Comment author: ennui 12 September 2008 04:59:00AM 0 points [-]

In that special Cartesian theater, I can picture an even smaller Homunculus pulling the strings of the larger. And so on. Turtles.

Comment author: Z._M._Davis 12 September 2008 05:23:53AM 4 points [-]

Ennui: "In that special Cartesian theater, I can picture an even smaller Homunculus pulling the strings of the larger."

But what if the homunculus were ontologically fundamental?--of course the notion is silly and of course it's false, but I'm not yet convinced that it's literally nonsense on the order of square circles or A-and-not-A. It could be that I just need some intuition-reshaping, but in the meantime I can do nothing else but call it as I see it.

Comment author: Perplexed 02 August 2010 03:13:39PM 4 points [-]

Substance dualism doesn't even require that homunculi be fundamental. It only requires that they be built from mind-stuff. They can be composite agents in the sense of co-operative game theory. Maybe that explains why humans are not perfectly rational. We are controlled by a committee.

Comment author: Constant2 12 September 2008 06:25:23AM 0 points [-]

Aaron - yes, I know that. It's beside the point.

Comment author: Mike_Blume 12 September 2008 07:41:01AM 2 points [-]

Z. M. Davis: But if you think about the things that the homunculus tends to do, I think you would find yourself needing to move to levels below the homunculus to do it. To give it a coherent set of actions it is likely to take, and not to take, at any given time, you would have to populate it with wants, with likes, with beliefs, with structures for reasoning about beliefs.

I think eventually you would come to an algorithm of which the homunculus would have to be an instantiation, and you would have to assume that that algorithm was represented somewhere.

I just don't see how you can make sensible predictions about ontologically basic complicated things. And I know people will go on about how you can't make predictions about a person with free will, but that's a crock. You expect me to try to coherently answer your post. I expect a cop to arrest me if I drive too fast. More to the point, we *don't* expect neurologically intact humans to spend three years walking backwards, or talk to puddles, or remove their clothing and sing "I'm a little teapot" in Times Square.

And the same goes for gods, incidentally. Religious folk will say that their gods' ways are ineffable, that they can't be predicted. But they still expect their gods to answer prayers, and forgive sins, and torture people like me for millennia, and they don't expect them to transform mount everest into a roast beef sandwich, or thunder forth nursery rhymes from the heavens.

They have coherent expectations, and for those expectations to make sense you have to open the black box and put things in there. You have to postulate structure, and relationships between parts, and soon you haven't got something ontologically basic anymore.

Comment author: Tim_Tyler 12 September 2008 07:46:08AM -2 points [-]

The dictionary has at #1: "of, pertaining to, or being above or beyond what is natural; unexplainable by natural law or phenomena; abnormal."

It seems about right. E.g. travelling into to the past is supernatural.

Comment author: Ian_C. 12 September 2008 08:08:34AM 0 points [-]

It's deeper than science being only applicable to natural things -- *reason as such* is only applicable to natural things. Once you are in the realm of the supernatural anything is possible and the laws of logic don't necessarily hold. You have to just close your mouth and turn off your mind and have faith. Which does not give a teacher a lot of material to work with...

Comment author: Mike_Blume 12 September 2008 08:13:52AM 1 point [-]

Somebody let me know if I'm pushing my allowed post rate?

Tim: I'm not sure about that definition. Are we saying unexplainable by natural law as understood by humans at the time - ie quantum tunneling was supernatural 100 years ago, but is no longer?

Or would that mean unexplainable by the natural laws that exist? I just don't like this one because then we've simply defined the supernatural out of existence. The set of supernatural things and the set of real things would be non-overlapping by definition.

Comment author: botogol2 12 September 2008 08:46:11AM 0 points [-]

more pragmatically you can't teach creationism because you wouldn't know which which creationist story to teach? The christian one isn't the only creation story. How about the jain one? the buddhist story? the viking story? the Roman creation story?

One way to go about it would be to assemble the whole canon of stories, and then look about in the world around us to see if there is any evidence that helps support or falsify the different accounts. Maybe one could examine the stories and create some testable predictions from them and .... oh, hang about...

Comment author: Klaas_Wassenaar 12 September 2008 09:13:30AM 1 point [-]

Howmany believers in the supernatural examples given in this post would after reading this post remain believing the supernatural?

About teaching ID as science, isn't it often done before learning how to do scientific research?

People seem to learn about God, bible, while they still believe in Santa .

Comment author: JohnH 22 April 2011 01:18:18AM 0 points [-]

The definition given of supernatural doesn't make sense from my perspective, not even of God. As far as I can tell the definition describes exactly nothing.

I still believe in the supernatural in the sense of I know God is real and so are spirits and the devil. However spirit is some form of matter, God has a body of flesh and bones, and both God and the rest of the universe has existed in some form forever. Also God does not violate natural laws, though he does work with higher laws then what we currently know. Clearly not the standard religous claims and while it may seem that I am tailoring these beliefs to meet objections I am not; they are found in the Doctrine and Covenants of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and were given in the 1830-1840's.

You asked.

Comment author: Eugine_Nier 22 April 2011 01:26:11AM 5 points [-]

So basically God is a sufficiently advanced alien.

Comment author: JohnH 22 April 2011 01:39:27AM 0 points [-]

Basically yes, though we are of the same species as him. Not that being the same species makes him any less of an alien as in the Pearl of Great Price does say that there are other worlds on which humans live. The D&C also basically says there are non-human intelligent aliens out there as well.

Comment author: Alicorn 22 April 2011 02:18:08AM *  3 points [-]

The D&C also basically says there are non-human intelligent aliens out there as well.

Do they report to a different deity, so they match, or do they share ours?

(My Mormon friends are mostly sick of talking to me about religion. I congratulate you on being noncombative and civil here.)

Comment author: JohnH 22 April 2011 02:31:06AM 1 point [-]

The specific passage is in reference to the strange creatures in Revelation where the creatures do in fact report to our deity. There may be others that do not, if there are such information has not be revealed as of yet, though all things will eventually be revealed so I suppose we will eventually find out in some way, it just might not be until the millennium.

Comment author: badger 25 April 2011 04:19:40PM 3 points [-]

Do you know the reference for that? A quick Google search didn't turn up anything.

Growing up in the church, I took it as given that there were people growing up on other worlds, but this is the first time I've heard of non-human intelligent beings.

Comment author: JohnH 25 April 2011 06:01:32PM 1 point [-]

Revelation 4:6-9 - is where the beasts or creatures are described D&C 77:2-4 - is where it says they are both figurative as well as literal beasts or creatures.

Comment author: badger 25 April 2011 04:30:43PM 2 points [-]

This is non-standard, but not uncommon. My father-in-law will readily say he believes in a non-omniscient, non-omnipotent, naturalistic god.

The other extreme – everything is supernatural – is also present in LDS theology. All matter is composed of intelligence and hence under God's command because it recognizes his authority.

Comment author: RobinHanson 12 September 2008 10:02:05AM 0 points [-]

I share your difficulty of imagining irreducible mental stuff, but I'll still assign a 10^-3 chance of it being there anyway. Anyone else care to assign a number?

Comment author: Ben_Jones 12 September 2008 10:35:53AM 2 points [-]

Robin, what's your algorithm for drawing up a number like that? I'd genuinely like to know.

I only ask because you can get 1000-1 on Stoke to win the Premier League this season, and I'd rather have a tenner on that than on 'minds are made of fundamental mind-stuff' at the same odds.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 12 September 2008 10:56:55AM 0 points [-]

What does it mean for something to be irreducible?

Comment author: Utilitarian2 12 September 2008 12:51:13PM 5 points [-]

I would ask the same question as Nominull and Tiiba: Why is a fundamentally mental thing different from a fundamentally physical thing like quarks? If we discovered a spirit in a tree that wasn't composed of quarks and leptons, is there a reason we couldn't take that spirit to be a new fundamental particle that behaves in such-and-such a way, just as a down quark is a fundamental particle that behaves in such-and-such a way?

Eliezer: If, on the other hand, a supernatural hypothesis turns out to be true, then presumably you will also discover that it is not inconceivable.

Right. So apart from Occam's razor, what's the reason for excluding things that aren't quarks and leptons from your set of fundamental particles?

Comment author: poke 12 September 2008 02:29:00PM 6 points [-]

This is why I claim that atheism is an established scientific result. One of the strongest lines of evidence is, indeed, that we have successfully reduced minds and shown the notion of an irreducible mind to be incoherent. Mind as an irreducible simple is basic to all monotheistic religions. Demonstrating something once thought coherent to be incoherent is, of course, one of the strongest lines of evidence in science. Other avenues through which atheism has been established by science include conservation in physics, chemistry and biology (which led directly to materialism), evolution, and the development of plausible sociological accounts of religion. I would argue that atheism is as well established as Plate Tectonics and Natural Selection. What I think is telling is that most contemporary approaches to religious apologetics implicitly recognize that science has established atheism.

The theist has three avenues of response. The first is to attack specific parts of science. This is what Fundamentalist Christians do. The second, by far the most popular, is to attack the very possibility of scientific knowledge. This is what nearly all "liberal" religious believers who claim there is no conflict between science and religion do. They generally adopt a skeptical epistemology, holding that no knowledge claim can be true, or instrumentalism about science, holding that scientific claims are nonfactual, or a quasi-Kantian constructivist metaphysics wherein "true" reality is forever out of reach. The weird thing is that this position, which essentially rejects all of science, is considered more "sophisticated" and acceptable than the Fundamentalist position which rejects only select parts of science but remains realist about the rest. The third approach is to adopt some sort of nonfactualism about religious claims; essentially to hold that your religious practice is merely tradition. I think this nearly exhausts contemporary positions on religious apologetics and is therefore evidence that people implicitly accept that science has established atheism.

Comment author: Phil_Goetz5 12 September 2008 03:48:31PM 0 points [-]

I thought about this a bit more last night. I think the right justification for religion - which is not one that any religious person would consciously agree with - is that it does not take on faith the idea that truth is always good.

Reductionism aims at learning the truth. Religion is inconsistent and false - and that's a feature, not a bug. Its social purpose is to grease the wheels of society where bare truth would create friction.

For example: In Rwanda, people who slaughtered the families of other people in their village, are now getting out of jail and coming back to live with the surviving relatives of their victims in the same villages. Rwanda needs this to happen; there are so many killers and conspirators, that they can't keep them in jail or kill them - these killers are a significant part of their nation's work force. Also, this would start the war all over again.

I have heard a few accounts of how they persuade the surviving relatives to forgive and live with the killers. They agree that the only way to do this is by using religious arguments.

Perhaps a true rationalist could be persuaded to leave the killer of their family alone, on grounds of self-interest. I'm easily more rational than 99.9% of the population, but I don't think I'm that rational.

If we had a population of purely rational thinking machines, perhaps we would need no religion. But since we have only humans to work with, it may play a valid role where the irrational nature of humans and the rational truth of science would, together, lead to disaster.

Comment author: taryneast 19 December 2010 11:31:54AM 2 points [-]

Paraphrasing: It's just a lie used to manipulate people into doing what you want them to do against their natural tendencies... but because you're incapable of finding a truth that will actually satisfy them (ie it's a useful lie), it should be kept around.

Comment author: shokwave 19 December 2010 12:47:02PM 0 points [-]

That religion solves problems like "get people to accept daily life with the murderer of their family" really doesn't seem like justification, just a single positive aspect that probably doesn't outweigh the negatives. That there aren't many stronger justifications is also concerning.

To wit: The truth tells you not to jump off cliffs. That the truth is of no use to you once you have jumped off a cliff is hardly an argument against it. A useful lie telling you that you can fly will be very useful to you once you jump off a cliff, but that is hardly an argument for the useful lie when you're considering your decision regarding the cliff-jumping.

Comment author: Benja_Fallenstein 12 September 2008 04:05:04PM 6 points [-]

Eliezer, I think I agree with most of what you say in this post, but unless I misunderstand what you mean by "Bayesian confirmation," I think you're wrong about this bit:

If the "boring view" of reality is correct, then you can never predict anything irreducible because you are reducible. You can never get Bayesian confirmation for a hypothesis of irreducibility, because any prediction you can make is, therefore, something that could also be predicted by a reducible thing, namely your brain.

I think that while you can in this case never devise an empirical test whose outcome could logically prove irreducibility, there is no clear reason to believe that you cannot devise a test whose counterfactual outcome in an irreducible world would make irreducibility subjectively much more probable (given an Occamian prior).

Without getting into reducibility/irreducibility, consider the scenario that the physical universe makes it possible to build a hypercomputer -- that performs operations on arbitrary real numbers, for example -- but that our brains do not actually make use of this: they can be simulated perfectly well by an ordinary Turing machine, thank you very much. If this scenario were true, would it follow that we cannot possibly obtain "Bayesian confirmation" of its truth? I don't think that is the case: Of course, it is true that any empirical test our brains could devise in this scenario could also be passed by a Turing machine that simulated our brains to decide what its answer should be. In fact, every test "does the universe do X if we do Y at time T" we may devise to test whether the universe allows for infinite computations can be met by a Turing machine universe whose code simply includes the instruction to do X at time T. But, such a Turing machine may be complex enough that we start taking "the universe allows for hypercomputation" to be the simpler (and thus, more probable) alternative -- unless we are willing to completely exclude that possibility a priori, which I'm not willing to do and I expect you aren't, either.

Thus, I think that either your argument doesn't support your conclusion, or I don't understand your argument yet :-)

Comment author: Caledonian2 12 September 2008 04:53:07PM 1 point [-]

I still seem to be able to envision what things would look like if a form of Cartesian dualism were true.

I'm sure there are people who believe they can envision an immovable object meeting an irresistible force. They do not possess a special ability, they are merely in error.

Our ordinary laws of physics would govern all matter except one or more places deep in the brain, where the laws of physics would be violated where the soul is "pulling the strings" of the body, as it were. These deviations from physics would not happen unlawfully, but rather would be governed by special, complicated laws of psychology, rather than physics.

The matter always obeys the laws of physics, because the laws of physics describe how matter acts. The laws would simply be more complex than you had anticipated.

What conditions are necessary for your "special laws" to apply? By what mechanisms does substance interact with spirit?

You can patch any model by introducing new, special-purpose premises that cause the model to match the observations, but what good is that?

You can redefine words so that any assertion about reality is correct, but what good is that? What use is it to say that the Eucharist transforms wine into blood, and bread into flesh, if you have to redefine 'blood' and 'flesh' in the process of speaking?

Comment author: Strange7 20 January 2011 06:54:59PM 1 point [-]

I'm sure there are people who believe they can envision an immovable object meeting an irresistible force. They do not possess a special ability, they are merely in error.

The roleplaying game "Exalted" by White Wolf game studio has rules for what happens when an unstoppable force hits an immovable object, as part of a coherent, detailed cosmology where that kind of thing happens on a regular basis. At certain scales, from certain perspectives, it resembles our own world.

Comment author: Blueberry 20 January 2011 07:50:48PM 2 points [-]

The roleplaying game "Exalted" by White Wolf game studio has rules for what happens when an unstoppable force hits an immovable object

This is like saying there are game rules for what happens when a player draws a square circle.

Regardless of the game rules, both of those objects can't exist in the same world. Either the object wasn't immovable or the force wasn't unstoppable.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 20 January 2011 08:04:27PM 0 points [-]

Or, far more likely, both.

Comment author: ArisKatsaris 22 April 2011 01:22:31AM 7 points [-]

Regardless of the game rules, both of those objects can't exist in the same world. Either the object wasn't immovable or the force wasn't unstoppable.

What if they pass through each other? Then the one doesn't move, and the other doesn't stop.

Comment author: Blueberry 25 March 2012 01:00:21AM 3 points [-]

Mind. Blown.

Comment author: mtraven 12 September 2008 05:03:32PM 1 point [-]

@poke (i think you posted in the wrong thread) -- if you did a survey, limited to scientists, and asked questions like "is general relativity largely correct?', or 'Does DNA encode genes?', you would get near-100% agreement. If you asked 'is atheism true?', you would get a much lower number. Therefore, whatever opinions or arguments might seem convincing to you personally, atheism is not the strongest modern scientific result.

As ought to be obvious, statements about god are not scientific statements. You will not find peer-reviewed scientific literature proving or disproving the existence of god. God is a topic of endless of fascination on the fringes of science, which include philosophy, blogs like this one and popular books written by scientists, but is largely absent from the literature of actual science, for good reason.

If god is not a natural being, then science does not have the means to say whether it exists or not. It is not even clear what "exists" means for such entities. You can say that it makes no sense to talk about non-natural, non-material entities in any way, but as I pointed out before, we do it all the time for mathematical entities and I assume nobody here has a problem with that.

I find atheist fundamentalists amusing, because they are so certain that they know what "god" means, just like religious fundamentalists. Most sane and intelligent people with religious tendencies (and there are many, although they don't seem to get much press) understand that if "god" means anything, it is a pointer towards something unknown and perhaps unknowable, and arguing about whether it exists in the physical sense is missing the point completely.

Comment author: AndyCossyleon 06 August 2010 09:03:44PM 2 points [-]

Good post. For a question to receive a specific answer, it must be itself specific. "Does God exist?" is not a specific question and can therefore not receive a specific yes/no/dunno answer. "Does Yahweh exist?" on the other hand, is quite specific and requires the equally specific answer of "No."

Comment author: orthonormal 06 August 2010 09:11:44PM 2 points [-]

There are some perfectly well-defined generalizations, for instance "Was our portion of this universe designed in detail by an intelligent mind?"

(Of course, I take the Simulation Hypothesis seriously enough to answer either "Maybe" or "Yes and No", though further well-defined questions do distinguish between that hypothesis and more traditionally theist ones.)

Comment author: Caledonian2 12 September 2008 05:28:39PM 0 points [-]

You can say that it makes no sense to talk about non-natural, non-material entities in any way, but as I pointed out before, we do it all the time for mathematical entities and I assume nobody here has a problem with that.

Mathematical entities are not non-natural or non-material.

Why do you say that you find people who are certain they know what 'god' means amusing, then make it clear that you believe you know what 'god' means? Do you find yourself amusing, then, and in error?

Comment author: Matthew_C.2 12 September 2008 05:41:02PM 1 point [-]

One of the strongest lines of evidence is, indeed, that we have successfully reduced minds. . .

Just what exactly are you referring to here?

Comment author: billswift 12 September 2008 05:59:16PM 2 points [-]

"Mind as an irreducible simple is basic to all monotheistic religions." - poke

That is a wonderful definition of religion. And I think it covers all religions, not just monotheistic, which is why it could be so useful. Most definitions of religion have trouble covering the non-theistic versions, such as Buddhism and Jainism, which yours does cover. ("Mind as an irreducible simple" would be required to make their reincarnation systems work.)

Atheists don't know what god means - it is meaningless.

Comment author: steven 12 September 2008 06:20:11PM 2 points [-]

God is a shapeshifting horror from the outer beyond that constantly adapts its properties to whatever is most convenient given the argument currently being considered.

Comment author: Tim_Tyler 12 September 2008 06:26:01PM -1 points [-]

The dictionary doesn't specify that. Often it won't make much difference (assuming our understanding of physics is pretty good), and other times it would be clear from the context ("the ancients would have regarded human flight as supernatural").

The point is that "supernatural" has an established meaning that is supported well by the etymology of the word. I don't see much of a case for attempting to redefine the term it to mean something relatively arcane which the etymology gives no indication of.

Comment author: poke 12 September 2008 07:04:49PM 0 points [-]

mtraven,

Most sane and intelligent people with religious tendencies (and there are many, although they don't seem to get much press) understand that if "god" means anything, it is a pointer towards something unknown and perhaps unknowable, and arguing about whether it exists in the physical sense is missing the point completely.

This is just a version of my second option available to the theist. There's a knowable "physical" world and an unknowable one beyond it. There's no reason to believe this is the case. Moreover, if you believed something like this, you would be able to say "I'm an atheist about the physical world" and we could all agree on that and discuss whether talk of "something beyond the physical world" is coherent. You would also agree that science has established atheism about the physical world. Which is just my claim.

Matthew C. - I'm referring to neuroscience.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 12 September 2008 07:33:37PM 4 points [-]
Comment author: mtraven 12 September 2008 07:40:03PM 0 points [-]

Mathematical entities are material? Do tell. What are they made of? How do you determine their position and mass? Why do you say that you find people who are certain they know what 'god' means amusing, then make it clear that you believe you know what 'god' means?

I thought I made it clear that I don't, but my apologies if I expressed myself in too subtle a fashion for you.

Let me try again. People deploy the term "god" in different ways and mean different things by it. I'm distinguishing two different broad classes of meaning. One set of meanings, employed by both religious fundamentalists and atheist fundamentalists, posits a god that acts in various ways that contradict the findings of science. This is not a meaning that I myself am interested in, for what I hope are obvious reasons. The other kind of meaning, employed by people who are sane, intelligent, and nevertheless religious, means something else that is hard to define, certainly hard to define in the context of a blog flamewar, but does not contradict the findings of science.

Despite the squishiness of this second set of meanings, it is an undeniably true fact that there are many practicing scientists who have religious beliefs of that sort, such as Francis Collins. So the social facts demonstrate that religion and science are not inherently incompatible, no matter how much they seem so to you.

I myself am not very religious at all, but I find it a lot more interesting to take religious statements (or discourse from other fields that I am not conversant with) and try to imagine what it is that they could be true of, rather than dismissing them as nonsense.

Do you find yourself amusing, then, and in error? Quite often, to both parts of your question.

Comment author: Lincoln_Cannon 12 September 2008 08:20:58PM 2 points [-]

Eliezer, your characterization of religion is not generally accurate, as evidenced by the fact that not all religious persons posit an irreducibly complex God. As one example, Mormons posit a material God that became God through organizing existing matter according to existing laws.

On the other hand, I wonder, do you attribute irreducible complexity to quarks?

Comment author: James_Forrest 12 September 2008 10:46:38PM 0 points [-]

>>So... is the idea here, that creationism could be true, but even if it were true, you wouldn't be >>allowed to teach it in science class, because science is only about "natural" things?

If god(s) exist and (s)he/they/it created the universe and we possessed irrefutable evidence for both of those things, then s(he)/they/it would be "natural", and so, yes, you would be allowed to teach this in science class in that case.

>>Let me try again. People deploy the term "god" in different ways and mean different things by it.

There are in fact three definitions I am aware of:

(1) Theist - god(s) interfere in the world today and listen when we do stuff like "pray", (2) Deist - god(s) created the world at the beginning, but no longer actively interfere after than point, and (3) Pantheist - god(s) are a metpahor for a concept like "mother nature" or "the laws of physics".

Comment author: Douglas_Knight3 13 September 2008 04:02:21AM 0 points [-]

Phil Goetz, could you elaborate on the psychology of mythical creatures? That some creatures are "spiritual" sounds to me like a plausible distinction. I count vampires, but not unicorns. To me, a unicorn is just another chimera. Why do you think they're more special than mermaids? magic powers? How much of a consensus do you think exists?

Comment author: Caledonian2 13 September 2008 05:58:37PM 0 points [-]

means something else that is hard to define, certainly hard to define in the context of a blog flamewar, but does not contradict the findings of science.

The findings of science are almost irrelevent. The means justify the ends. The usage of concepts that are not clearly and properly defined is incompatible with scientific methodology, and thus incompatible with science.

No sane, rational, and sufficiently-educated person puts forward arguments incompatible with science.

Comment author: DilGreen 13 October 2010 12:49:26AM 0 points [-]

No sane, rational, and sufficiently-educated person puts forward arguments incompatible with science.

The problem with this statement is that it puts 99.999% of everyone 'beyond the pale'. It disallows meaningful conversations about things which have huge functional impacts on all humans, but about which science has little of use or coherence to say. It cripples conversation about things which our current science deems impossible, without allowing for the certainty that key aspects of what is currently accepted science will be superseded in the future.

In other words, it is an example of a reasonable sounding thing to say that is almost perfectly useless. You have argued yourself into a box.

I would suggest that no sane, rational and sufficiently-educated person ascribes zero probability to irrational seeming propositions.

Comment author: mtraven 14 September 2008 01:04:57AM 1 point [-]

poke: There's a knowable "physical" world and an unknowable one beyond it. There's no reason to believe this is the case.

How would you know? Surely there are a great many things that are unknown and unknowable. The idea that it constitutes a separate "world" is your phrase, not mine.

Moreover, if you believed something like this, you would be able to say "I'm an atheist about the physical world" and we could all agree on that and discuss whether talk of "something beyond the physical world" is coherent.

Er, no. You make the mistake of supposing that this "unknowable world" is just like our own but disconnected from it. Again, I return to my analogy to mathematical objects and the world of Platonic ideals that they exist in. There's a non-physical "world", vastly different from the physical world yet intimately involved with it. If the spiritual concepts have any reality at all, it's got to be something like that.

So, if anyone is still interested in talking about this, how about breaking down this idea into two parts:

- standard mathematical Platonism (not a settled truth, but usually considered the default position in philosophy of mathematics) - my tentative analogy between mathematical objects and supernatural entities

Feel free to disagree or question either of these parts, but at least say which one you are disagreeing with.

Comment author: bigjeff5 03 February 2011 11:22:03PM 2 points [-]

How would you know? Surely there are a great many things that are unknown and unknowable. The idea that it constitutes a separate "world" is your phrase, not mine.

I don't know if there is cake in the asteroid belt, and given current technology such a thing is, at this time, unknowable. That doesn't give credence to the absurd notion that there is cake in the asteroid belt. I have no reason to believe this is the case.

The "supernatural" is a whole lot more complicated and a whole lot less discoverable than cake.

Comment author: frelkins 14 September 2008 02:30:08AM 0 points [-]

@mtraven

"- my tentative analogy between mathematical objects and supernatural entities"

By the Chair of Jacob Klein! That part. Right there. No. The Eide are not that. The Eide are what thinking thinks about, the Forms (Eide) the Mind (Nous) Shines (phaino) Upon. They are "seen" only in the light of the intellect. Supernatural entities - I guess you mean ghosts or souls or such - are not. . .ack! English sucks sometimes. . .

This is very difficult, as English doesn't have good terms to equal the Greek. German might be better. WTF. Ghosts and souls are not objects of the intellect, people assert they are things, albeit not like the things of phusis (nature).

Actually, this isn't really the best place to discuss Plato - maybe it would be better to just refresh yourself with Meno & Parmenides, but since you seem interested in physics and number, maybe go with Timaeus.

Surely it is clear however, if one is going to groove with this beat, that mathematical entities are grasped by thought, or revealed purely by thought, or are phenomena (with that root in phaino) of pure intellect; they do not "go bump in the night" nor are they "reincarnated."

Comment author: mtraven 14 September 2008 04:49:06PM 0 points [-]

Frelkins -- thanks for the references. I am pretty philosophically illiterate and it wouldn't surprise me at all to find out that I'm reinventing stuff that has been around for thousands of years.

I did not mean to imply that supernatural entities are identical in every way to mathematical entities; I'm just using mathematical entities as a club to beat up a certain sort of simple-minded materialism. It turns out that even science geeks talk about immaterial entities all the time. That's interesting.

You are right, this is probably not the place to discuss these idea, but I wanted to drop two more bits if anybody is still reading:

No less a mathematician than Kurt Gรถdel spent part of his later years coming up with formal proofs of the existence of God. I personally am not impressed by this proof, but it shows that working too long with the foundations of mathematics can lead one in strange directions.

Another is this web site, Religious Naturalism, which is a sort of clearinghouse for versions of spirituality and religion that are compatible with science.

Comment author: Phil_Goetz5 06 October 2008 11:02:40PM 0 points [-]

could you elaborate on the psychology of mythical creatures? That some creatures are "spiritual" sounds to me like a plausible distinction. I count vampires, but not unicorns. To me, a unicorn is just another chimera. Why do you think they're more special than mermaids? magic powers? How much of a consensus do you think exists?

Sorry I missed this!

I think it may have to do with how heavy a load of symbolism the creature carries. Unicorns were used a lot to symbolize purity, and acquired magical and non-magical properties appropriate to that symbolism. Dragons, vampires, and werewolves are also used symbolically. Mermaids, basilisks, not so much. Centaurs have lost their symbolism (a Greek Apollo/Dionysus dual-nature-of-man thing, I think), and CS Lewis did much to destroy the symbolism associated with fauns by making them nice chaps who like tea and dancing.

Now that I think about it, Lewis and Tolkien both wrote fantasy that was very literal-minded, and replaced symbolism with allegory.

Comment author: Jim_Hill 21 February 2009 04:36:54AM -2 points [-]

To Phil, who asked for a definition of "vampire":

A vampire is a person possessed by the lust for vengeance. That spirit is notably difficult to kill or banish. The young and innocent are particularly susceptible. Once you invite it into your home, it can always return. Of those completely possessed by it, one can say "on reflection, there's no one there". It thrives in the unexamined dark and cannot abide the full light of day.

Comment author: [deleted] 17 August 2009 09:29:10PM 0 points [-]

This post seems to be saying this:

"Our universe is reductionist. [Other reasoning.] Therefore, we cannot imagine what a non-reductionist universe would be like."

If we cannot imagine what a non-reductionist universe would be like, it is impossible to come to the conclusion that our universe is reductionist.

Comment author: pdf23ds 17 May 2010 01:59:43PM 3 points [-]

I remember, when first reading this article, that it was really convincing and compelling. I looked it up again because I wanted to be able to make the argument myself, and now I find that I don't understand how you can get from "if the staid conventional normal boring understanding of physics and the brain is correct" to "there's no way in principle that a human being can concretely envision, and derive testable experimental predictions about, an alternate universe in which things are irreducibly mental." That seems like too large a jump for me. Any help?

Comment author: Sniffnoy 27 July 2010 10:02:24PM 3 points [-]

I have to wonder if your characterization of people who deny reductionism is really correct. I agree most of them are probably confused and do not have a coherent model in the first place - certainly actual non-reductionism is a confusion - but I'm not certain all of them are confused in the way you say.

From my experience it seems that the claims of the people who deny "reductionism" could be coherently understood if we assume that they are actually confused about what reductionism actually consists of, and that they are not denying actual reductionism, just one particular version of it that they are imagining the term necessarily refers to.

E.g. if we assume that they are simply saying that in some cases, the irreducible components of the universe are complicated rather than simple, and that the lowest level is something that appears to be "high level", then this is, though almost certainly wrong, at least coherent. It is also technically reductionist, albeit possibly trivially so (worst case: entire universe is a giant lookup table). But they don't think of it as reductionism as it doesn't much resemble what they're used to seeing called by that name.

Indeed I would go so far as to say that the people who deny reductionism are very often the same people who are implicitly making the mistake of greedy reductionism! They fail to think in terms of interactions of components, of actual systems, and so make the mistake of inferring angry atoms. They do reduce things, it's just that they reduce everything to supernatural things that can only interact via some sort of superposition principle. This pretty much fails at predicting anything, but it is at least coherent.

I don't know, does this make sense?

Comment author: TheOtherDave 12 November 2010 06:45:51PM 1 point [-]

Mm. It makes sense, but I don't think it's on-point.

Up to a point, I agree with you. The Bohr model of the atom posits a lowest-level description that appears to us now to be "high-level", as you say, but it would not be fair to dismiss Bohr as a denier of reductionism on that basis. Similarly, if 22nd-century physics demonstrates that our current ontology is similarly confused, and there is a yet-more-parsimonious explanation that is consistent with observed data, it would not be fair to claim we deny reductionism.

It's unfair precisely because it elides the difference between (on the one hand) not being able to analyze something in terms of its component parts and (on the other) rejecting in principle any such analysis.

EY seems to be talking here about people who do the latter... who would deny that anything explainable could be their God, whatever surface properties it turned out to have. You seem to be talking about both groups at once.

To put this a different way... suppose Alice, Bob, and Cindy all worship a dryad, who is either Tiiba's dryad or an analog made of quarks, and a scientist comes along to determine which it is. Alice insists that studying the dryad's composition isn't possible/permitted. Bob confidently predicts that the dryad will all be whitestuff. Cindy shrugs and doesn't care; she makes the choice to worship based on surface-level considerations that don't depend on whether it's quarks or whitestuff.

Alice and Bob both make supernatural claims. Cindy isn't making a supernatural claim at all, by this post's definitions.

You argue that Bob is just claiming that some irreducible components are complicated, and the dryad happens to be one of them, and that this is perfectly compatible with reductionism (albeit perhaps trivially so)... even if Bob doesn't call himself a reductionist.

And that's true enough, as far as it goes. Bob is also admitting that his supernatural claim is testable and falsifiable by scientific research.

Meanwhile, Alice claims "separate magisteria."

As far as I can tell, the argument of EY's post relates exclusively to Alice.

Comment author: RobinLionheart 18 April 2011 05:28:06PM *  0 points [-]

Reminds me of Conversational Atheist posting that “Christians rarely realize the very real problem that arises for them once “supernatural explanations” are on the table”. Allowing them opens the floodgates to all sorts of alternative explanations for miracles.

Comment author: Rixie 05 April 2013 12:19:39PM 0 points [-]

I'm sorry for posting such a pointless comment, but how do we change how the comments are sorted? I can see a Sort By: Old thing above the comments, but nothing happens when I click on it. Is there somewhere I can change settings, or something?
Thank you.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 09 April 2013 03:32:10PM 2 points [-]

I think what's going on here is that older posts simply don't have this feature enabled, I assume because the feature depends on the comments having been stored in a particular way. Recent posts have a "Sort By: " menu there.

Comment author: timujin 10 November 2013 11:01:42AM *  3 points [-]

If the "boring view" of reality is correct, then you can never predict anything irreducible because you are reducible. You can never get Bayesian confirmation for a hypothesis of irreducibility, because any prediction you can make is, therefore, something that could also be predicted by a reducible thing, namely your brain.

Some boxes you really can't think outside. If our universe really is Turing computable, we will never be able to concretely envision anything that isn't Turing-computable—no matter how many levels of halting oracle hierarchy our mathematicians can talk about, we won't be able to predict what a halting oracle would actually say, in such fashion as to experimentally discriminate it from merely computable reasoning.

I don't quite understand this one. How does "you are reducible" imply "you cannot conceive anything nonreducible"? Human beings with their merely Turing-complete brains can understand the concept of a non-Turing-computable problems. If our universe turns out to be more than Turing computable, and aliens give us a box that can map an integer to an integer by a non-computable function together with a verbal description of the function (say, "N -> busy-beaver(N)"), we will be able to use it, and understand what it does and why it is useful. Even though we will not be able to predict the exact outputs without a similar box, we could conceive what would the output look like ("like an integer bigger than X and smaller than Y"). Correspondingly, I see no impossibility in that a reducible brain can imagine what a non-reducible universe would look like.

Say, suppose there is a universe made of three types of things: ghosts, transistors and billiard balls. Transistors and billiard balls can form structures that compute functions up to primitive recursive. Billiard balls can interact with ghosts and transistors, acting as an interface between two. Ghosts can directly interact only with billiard balls. Every ghost observes the state of billiard balls around itself every five seconds and outputs one of actions: haunt, spook or wail, that affect the billiard balls in some way. The computation performed by a ghost is Turing-complete, but not primitive recursive. Thus, ghosts can never be reduced to transistors and billiard balls. Creatures made of transistors can observe billiard balls and infer the existence of ghosts. They will obviously not be able to form a complete model of a ghost, but they could make statistical observations about them. They could form primitive recursive statements, such as "a ghost spooks 50% of the time regardless of billiard balls around, except if it was surrounded by four balls in pyramidal pattern 5 seconds ago, in which case it always haunts". These statements will not describe the entire behavior of a ghost, but they will be conceivable, imaginable and detectable by transistor-creatures. And it, I suppose, is a probable thought that can occur to a transistor-creature - "what if ghosts are not computable?" (in their definition of computability that is merely primitive recursive).

In the same way, I see no trouble in visualizing a world which is just like ours, but contains a non-reducible-to-quarks, non-computable (by my definition of computability that is merely Turing computable) ghost that reads the state of quarks and produces a behavior that is outside of the box I'm thinking in. It will be my problem, not Universe's.

Comment author: eli_sennesh 10 November 2013 01:24:51PM 0 points [-]

There's a difference between an existence proof and a constructive proof. We can talk about existence proofs for, "Here's what happens when we hook a magical Halting Oracle to a Turing Machine and run certain programs." We do not have any constructive proof of how a Halting Oracle would behave.

Just because you can say, "Imagine we had a thing with these properties" doesn't mean you know how to build such a thing.