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

Psychic Powers

13 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 12 September 2008 07:28PM

Followup to: Excluding the Supernatural

Yesterday, I wrote:

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.

Benja Fallenstein commented:

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...

Well, that's a very intelligent argument, Benja Fallenstein.  But I have a crushing reply to your argument, such that, once I deliver it, you will at once give up further debate with me on this particular point:

You're right.

Alas, I don't get modesty credit on this one, because after publishing yesterday's post I realized a similar flaw on my own—this one concerning Occam's Razor and psychic powers:

If beliefs and desires are irreducible and ontologically basic entities, or have an ontologically basic component not covered by existing science, that would make it far more likely that there was an ontological rule governing the interaction of different minds—an interaction which bypassed ordinary "material" means of communication like sound waves, known to existing science.

If naturalism is correct, then there exists a conjugate reductionist model that makes the same predictions as any concrete prediction that any parapsychologist can make about telepathy.

Indeed, if naturalism is correct, the only reason we can conceive of beliefs as "fundamental" is due to lack of self-knowledge of our own neurons—that the peculiar reflective architecture of our own minds exposes the "belief" class but hides the machinery behind it.

Nonetheless, the discovery of information transfer between brains, in the absence of any known material connection between them, is probabilistically a privileged prediction of supernatural models (those that contain ontologically basic mental entities).  Just because it is so much simpler in that case to have a new law relating beliefs between different minds, compared to the "boring" model where beliefs are complex constructs of neurons.

The hope of psychic powers arises from treating beliefs and desires as sufficiently fundamental objects that they can have unmediated connections to reality.  If beliefs are patterns of neurons made of known material, with inputs given by organs like eyes constructed of known material, and with outputs through muscles constructed of known material, and this seems sufficient to account for all known mental powers of humans, then there's no reason to expect anything more—no reason to postulate additional connections.  This is why reductionists don't expect psychic powers.  Thus, observing psychic powers would be strong evidence for the supernatural in Richard Carrier's sense.

We have an Occam rule that counts the number of ontologically basic classes and ontologically basic laws in the model, and penalizes the count of entities.  If naturalism is correct, then the attempt to count "belief" or the "relation between belief and reality" as a single basic entity, is simply misguided anthropomorphism; we are only tempted to it by a quirk of our brain's internal architecture.  But if you just go with that misguided view, then it assigns a much higher probability to psychic powers than does naturalism, because you can implement psychic powers using apparently simpler laws.

Hence the actual discovery of psychic powers would imply that the human-naive Occam rule was in fact better-calibrated than the sophisticated naturalistic Occam rule.  It would argue that reductionists had been wrong all along in trying to take apart the brain; that what our minds exposed as a seemingly simple lever, was in fact a simple lever.  The naive dualists would have been right from the beginning, which is why their ancient wish would have been enabled to come true.

So telepathy, and the ability to influence events just by wishing at them, and precognition, would all, if discovered, be strong Bayesian evidence in favor of the hypothesis that beliefs are ontologically fundamental.  Not logical proof, but strong Bayesian evidence.

If reductionism is correct, then any science-fiction story containing psychic powers, can be output by a system of simple elements (i.e., the story's author's brain); but if we in fact discover psychic powers, that would make it much more probable that events were occurring which could not in fact be described by reductionist models.

Which just goes to say:  The existence of psychic powers is a privileged probabilistic assertion of non-reductionist worldviews—they own that advance prediction; they devised it and put it forth, in defiance of reductionist expectations.  So by the laws of science, if psychic powers are discovered, non-reductionism wins.

I am therefore confident in dismissing psychic powers as a priori implausible, despite all the claimed experimental evidence in favor of them.


Part of the sequence Reductionism

(end of sequence)

Previous post: "Excluding the Supernatural"

Comments (93)

Sort By: Old
Comment author: Pseudonym 12 September 2008 07:47:12PM 2 points [-]

How much could any experimental evidence whatsoever really raise your estimate of psychic powers, given the possibility of 'Matrix' type abilities in a simulation?

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 12 September 2008 08:16:55PM 2 points [-]

If anyone here is interested in psi from a nonskeptic viewpoint, I'd sooner recommend Damien Broderick's "Outside the Gates of Science". (I haven't read it myself, but I don't want to leave you with just Matthew's recommendation.)

If there's an online page with central references and abstracts for allegedly repeatable psi experiments, I'd be interested in glancing through that - fodder for future posts.

Comment author: lucio 12 September 2008 08:28:32PM 0 points [-]

dont worry eliezer, no editor in this blog is getting any modesty points either.

Comment author: Thom_Blake 12 September 2008 08:35:23PM 7 points [-]

But if there are repeatable psi experiments, then why hasn't anyone won the million dollars? (or even passed the relatively easy first round?)

Comment author: Tim_Tyler 12 September 2008 09:23:09PM 1 point [-]

Uh, "The Irreducible Mind" is garbage.

Comment author: JulianMorrison 12 September 2008 09:48:57PM 0 points [-]

I don't see how you can shrink the number of rules even in the non-reductionist case. You'd need enough rules to describe, not a simple-behaving ontologically basic psychic power (like quantum spooky action at a distance seen by a Copenhagen theorist) but a complex one (like statistically barely noticeable psychokinesis) that does a nearly-perfect imitation of a meat brain, down to the quarks. You have to model the whole of the reductionist case AND the psychic power as well. That's necessarily more entities.

Comment author: michael_vassar 12 September 2008 10:49:01PM 10 points [-]

I took psi seriously back when I thought that the scientific method defined rationality. Once I learned about Bayes I realized that the sort of reports of psi that science turns up would be expected if psi isn't real while much more blatant things would be expected if real psi inspired the investigation. I also noticed that priors matter and psi really should be ignored without very large effects based on low priors. Somewhat earlier pre-Bayes psi had blended somewhat into the category "Everything you know is wrong" and loose specific identity as 'psi'. Post-Bayes the "Everything you know is wrong" itself split into a few categories and psi went in the "reason is a mistake" extreme category.

Comment author: Peter3 12 September 2008 11:04:20PM 1 point [-]

"If the 'boring view' of reality is correct, then you can never predict anything irreducible because you are reducible."

Maybe I missed this yesterday, or in another reductionism post, but doesn't that imply that there is no fundamental level of reality - nothing which is not reducible to something else? It could also be that I'm just not understanding what you mean.

Comment author: Pyramid_Head3 12 September 2008 11:22:17PM 1 point [-]

Eliezer, what if psi phenomena are real, but they work through as-yet-unknown laws of physics? In this case reductionism could still be true (and probable), even if psi is real. I can't really see why psi phenomena rule out a reductionist universe (and I guess Damien Broderick agrees...).

By the way, I don't believe in psi, and think that all effects found thus far are based on the misapplication of statistics and related errors.

Comment author: Psy-Kosh 12 September 2008 11:46:02PM 1 point [-]

Pyramid: The point is that sure, that's possible, but we shouldn't bet on that. That is, if we do discover psi is real, without having discovered a reduction for it, then we should increase our belief that the universe has irreducible mental (or mental like) components.

It is not absolute proof. The point is that it actually would be evidence favoring that position. It's not quite obvious to me that it would be strong evidence, but the argument does seem convincing that it would be evidence.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 13 September 2008 05:53:31AM 5 points [-]

Post-Bayes the "Everything you know is wrong" itself split into a few categories and psi went in the "reason is a mistake" extreme category.

I don't quite see this one. Telepathy and telekinesis would be easy enough to implement via the Matrix or even lesser technologies. Even precognition holds out the possibility of expanding our account of causality to allow loops, which General Relativity occasionally seems to threaten. How is psi on the same order as 2 + 2 = 3, or Jehovah as the one true God of all reality?

Comment author: NickRetallack 19 July 2013 08:41:01AM 0 points [-]

What's this "the Matrix" everyone in this thread is talking about? The movie? The idea that we're all in a computer simulation?

Btw, as for causality loops, Feynman describes antimatter as "just like regular matter, only traveling backwards in time", which means if we allow for time travel, we've just reduced the number of types of particles in our description of reality by half =].

Comment author: linkhyrule5 10 October 2013 08:16:25PM 2 points [-]

The latter. If you see telepathy, it's more likely that you're in a simulation in a reductionist universe than in an irreducible universe.

Comment author: Tim_Tyler 13 September 2008 06:49:27AM 1 point [-]

The supposed evidence consists of stigmata, hypnotic suggestion, automatic writing, multiple personality disorders, near-death experiences, out-of-body experiences, apparitions, visions, genius level creativity and ecstatic states of consciousness. Since the stated aim is:

For an enlarged scientific picture of human mind and personality to emerge, two things need to happen: First, it must be demonstrated that the currently dominant physicalist theories of mind-brain relations are inadequate in principle; and second, an alternative theory must be found that remedies these defects. The present volume has sought mainly to address the first of these tasks, by assembling in one place large amounts of credible evidence for a wide variety of empirical phenomena that appear difficult or impossible to explain in conventional physicalist terms. (Irreducible Mind, p. 639)

...that evidence is plainly inadequate. You would need to find evidence that is incompatible with current theories in order to disprove them.

Comment author: Benja_Fallenstein 13 September 2008 09:50:03AM 6 points [-]

But I have a crushing reply to your argument, such that, once I deliver it, you will at once give up further debate with me on this particular point: You're right.


[...what's that? Foul! Foul! You can't do that! Now I shall have to find a new nit to pick!]

Comment author: michael_vassar 13 September 2008 01:17:09PM 2 points [-]

It's not on that level, that's the level which I respond to with the forbidden bet, e.g. p = 0, along with all the other stuff that implies strongly that our concepts of probability are simply broken.

Reason is a mistake for less extreme reasons such as "I'm dreaming" or "I'm a Boltzman Brain" or some forms of "my life is not merely a simulation but a psychological experiment".

Comment author: frelkins 13 September 2008 03:43:59PM 1 point [-]

The possibility that many "paranormal" or "psi" experiences are caused by undiagnosed or transient temporal lobe disorders should not be overlooked. Epilepsy is still poorly understood, underdiagnosed, and misdiagnosed. These "supernatural" things could be caused by natural but unusual brain states.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 13 September 2008 05:15:07PM 2 points [-]

Vassar, I don't understand why psi is on that level. Unless you're presuming that someone is telepathically influencing you to make mistakes.

Comment author: michael_vassar 13 September 2008 06:45:11PM 0 points [-]

You pretty much said it. Hypotheses suggested by mind-projection priors turning out to be true pretty much refutes Occam and consequentially science.

Comment author: Ken4 14 September 2008 09:36:06PM 1 point [-]

I considered going anonymous for this because I know I'll be decimated here among you guys, but I decided to be bold because I think it's an argument worth making.

I have a world view that's very similar to many of you here, with reductionism as one of the center pieces.

So now to queue the lamentation and ridicule which I bring willingly: I am a psychic as well.

Many, many wishful people come at this from the fairy tail perspective of wishing paranormal things to exist, and therefore convincing themselves that they do.

I came from an opposite perspective.

I began with the assumption that it couldn't be true because of my reductionist beliefs, but am faced with a body of evidence so overwhelming that I cannot deny it.

I do not WANT to believe in psychic phenomena, but I am forced to as a result of the evidence I've been exposed to.

How can I explain the improbably accurate and precise information I know about people and the future? How can I explain the images that come into my mind that have such a crushingly high correlation with the images in the minds around me? How can I accurately guess the history of the occupants of particular building?

I mean, seriously, _I_ hardly believe it -- why in the hell would someone occupying some arbitrary location in space, that happens to be surrounded by a building, leave some kind of information there after his body is gone? What is the mechanism by which the information is stored? It flies against my entire world view, and my concept of how the universe is fundamentally organized. Yet there the information is, and on the occasions I'm able to get corroboration on the information I receive, I'm right about it the overwhelming majority of the time.

If I say to you, Eli, that as an experiment to rule out this nonsense, I had my wife imagine an arbitrary object, and that I was able to tell her what that object was within a minute, then you would have no reason to believe me. But imagine, hypothetically, that it was you who had done such a thing, and had done it often, with a high degree of success. You might not be able to compel others in your circle to believe you, but you yourself would HAVE to take notice. Even if you couldn't explain how it worked, you'd have to acknowledge that it worked, or at least try hard to find the trick your mind was playing on you.

I do not pretend to know the mechanism by which this works, but I am confident that it does, in fact, work, and that the mechanism is natural, not supernatural.

To those skeptics, I ask: why are you confident at all that your map matches the territory in anything more than a fleeting, superficial way? If the territory is so much more complex than we're capable of mapping, then why can't there be entire apparati built into our brains or other constituent parts that we have no basis for detecting or understanding at this point? Parts of our mind that despite our ignorance, can deliver accurate perception to those parts that we currently DO understand?

Most people here would answer: why would we try to hypothesize some extra constituent part that do not constrain our expectations in any way?

To that I answer: I am one who has observed evidence for which I have no explanation, which may in fact require those extra constituent parts.

I know psychics exist because I've worked hard to debunk my own abilities but I've failed. I'm also sure reductionism is correct, and therefore I'm sure reductionism and psychic abilities are not mutually exclusive.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 14 September 2008 10:05:57PM 6 points [-]

Ken, I look forward to hearing about your lottery wins.

Comment author: frelkins 14 September 2008 10:31:27PM 1 point [-]


I hear your cry. I take you seriously and have no interest in insulting you. If you think this is an issue for you, may I suggest you consider a neurologist? Have you ever had a brain scan? There are many kinds of temporal lobe events, and you may benefit from diagnosis and possibly treatment. You may find relief with Tegretol or a similar agent.

Of course you know what your wife is imagining: you know her well and are obviously adept at reading her subconscious facial and body cues. Many of us often know what our friends are thinking, but I assure you it is simply because we are quite attuned to such subtle signals. This is a talent that can be learned, as anyone who has seen the English stage magician Derren Brown can attest. Best wishes to you!

Comment author: Psy-Kosh 14 September 2008 10:44:15PM 2 points [-]

Ken: Do the experiment with your wife repeatedly and see what happens.

Alternately: do you right now have "visions"/guesses/whatever of say, tomorrow? Write down a list of them, say, ten of them. Tomorrow note which were accurate and which were inaccurate.

Alt alt: I have written down on a small piece of paper a four digit number, and underneath this, drawn something. What is the number and what have I drawn? (Alternately, have your wife do that experiment with you a few times)

Comment author: Ken4 15 September 2008 01:31:50AM 0 points [-]

A few things.

First, I have actually been through a process of diagnosis that I submitted myself to for this very purpose -- to uncover whatever underlying neurological issue I had. They found nothing out of the ordinary, and I function perfectly well. I am well adjusted, not on medication, and otherwise "normal."

Second, comments like Eli's about the lottery aren't fair, because I never claimed to be omniscient, only to have some sort of extra perception.

Imagine a scenario in which the world is filled with deaf people. Human beings have never had a sense of hearing. I, through some genetic quirk, am born with a sense of hearing, however faint it may be, and I am faced with convincing the people around me that I can "hear." My first obstacle is to explain what hearing even means to someone who has no basis for understanding it.

Even if they were able to form a mental image of what a sound might be like (I'm not sure how they would, but for the sake of argument...), they wouldn't have a sense of the boundaries. Why can I hear air planes that are very far away from me but not hear what's going on in the next room very well?

I cannot see lotto numbers, I'm afraid... however, and this brings me to the next point, I can "see" people's superficial thoughts and one great way to demonstrate it is paper rock scissors.

I have done an experiment in which I played 100 games in a row with my wife, and wrote down the results. I can see which she'll throw, and I'll throw the opposite. I won 90% of the time (91 I think, but I didn't keep the paper I wrote it on). That's not really possible statistically.

You might wonder why I don't submit myself to public scrutiny if my results are so consistent. Frankly, I'm terrified of it. Anyone who cared to test me would be doing so in the spirit of "outing" me, with the attitude that I was a crackpot... I don't generally enjoy such circumstances.

If I did go forward in the interest of research, despite my personal reservations, then I know any mistake on my part would be magnified by the researchers and public to debunk me thanks to confirmation bias. In addition, I would expect to be faced with experiments devised in ignorance and so I'd be asked questions like "what are tomorrow's lotto numbers?"

Frankly, under those conditions, I will fail. I am not that good. It's a weaker sense that's easily overwhelmed by the normal senses and by emotions, and I'm not that good. I couldn't perform under pressure.

Even if I could, there would be very little upside: if I perform less than optimally, I'd be chided as an idiot or charlatan, and if I performed perfectly the experiments would be disregarded as flawed, and the subject matter silly. That's all without mentioning the possible damage to my reputation... there's not a lot of incentive.

Comment author: Strange7 12 February 2010 08:45:39AM 2 points [-]

Is your thought-reading ability equally effective against strangers, or people whose presence you're aware of but who you can't make eye contact with? If eye contact is required (or helpful), what about looking at the other person through a narrow opening, such as a mail slot, so that only their eyes are visible?

Could it be used to determine the presence or absence of a person on the opposite side of an opaque, soundproofed barrier?

Comment author: Kevin 12 February 2010 09:42:05AM *  9 points [-]

In response to Ken saying a 90% win at Rock Paper Scissors is impossible, Rock Paper Scissors is not a very good test of the statistical significance of psychic powers. Rock Paper Scissors is something of a game of skill, especially when you are a playing against someone you know well that does not intentionally try to predict the other player's thought process. Ken's wife probably had something of a predictable pattern in that game -- maybe she got bored, maybe she subconsciously played poorly to make Ken seem like more of a psychic.

http://www.worldrps.com/ It started as a joke, but it's one of those jokes that became too serious for its own good. I would be very surprised if Ken could consistently beat any of the world's top ranked RPS players.

Comment author: arundelo 12 February 2010 04:06:10PM *  1 point [-]

It is much easier than you think to fool yourself about this sort of thing. Unless you've done a lot more experiments than the rock-paper-scissors one, and much more tightly controlled, you don't have enough evidence to believe what you believe.

(Edit: grammar.)

Comment author: ciphergoth 12 February 2010 04:07:42PM 4 points [-]

Call us back when you win the JREF $1M.

Comment author: thomblake 12 February 2010 04:18:27PM 3 points [-]

Strangely, lots of folks replying to a year and a half old comment imported from OB.

Comment author: tut 12 February 2010 04:28:41PM 6 points [-]

There are a bunch of new users, and people keep getting told to "read the sequences".

Comment author: ciphergoth 12 February 2010 04:40:17PM 1 point [-]

I saw the other responses and assumed the comment was new; I'll check next time. Thanks.

Comment author: mantis 15 August 2012 06:24:28PM 2 points [-]

Probably silly replying at this late date, but I'm going to do it anyway: Texas Holdem against strangers would be a much more compelling demonstration than RPS with your wife, and lucrative, too, if your powers are real. Surface thoughts should be sufficient to tell you when people are bluffing and when they genuinely have a strong hand, even if they don't tell you exactly what cards they hold. Better yet, they should tell you when your opponents are confident enough to call your bluff, and when they're not. That would give you a devastating advantage in the game. So I won't hold my breath for your lottery wins, but if you genuinely have the abilities you describe I would expect to hear about your World Series of Poker bracelets.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 15 September 2008 02:02:10AM 0 points [-]

Ah. Well, I look forward to hearing the news of your lottery wins, then.

Comment author: Ian_Maxwell 15 September 2008 02:30:59AM 5 points [-]

@Ken: I am interested in your claim. You can understand that your personal testimony is not really enough to convince, but I will assume that you are posting in good faith and are serious about (dis)proving your psychic abilities to your own satisfaction.

You may wish to attempt the following modification on the rock-paper-scissors experiment: Your wife (or another party) will roll a six-sided die. 1-2, she will throw rock; 3-4, she will throw paper; 5-6, she will throw scissors. In this way, her throw will be entirely random (and so not predictable through ordinary mental reasoning), and yet she will know in advance what she plans to throw (and so it will be predictable given sufficient access to her inner mental state). If over a large number of trials you are able to guess her throws more often than expected, you are probably onto something.

Comment author: Tim_Tyler 15 September 2008 08:04:15AM 1 point [-]
Comment author: Ken_Sharpe2 15 September 2008 02:51:01PM 2 points [-]

Tim, that was fascinating. I don't know how he did it. I certainly don't have a "trick," but of course you can't know that.

Ian: that's a great idea, I'll try it tonight if I have some time. I'll report back honestly. I think I'll be able to perform under those circumstances, but it'll be interesting to see.

Comment author: bigjeff5 04 February 2011 01:15:24AM 2 points [-]

Actually it's plain old psychology in action.

If you watch, every opponent repeats the last move Derren made. He starts it off by explaining the rules of the game by throwing scissors as an example. He uses a bit of fast talk to keep his opponent from thinking about what his own best move should be and instead thinking about what Derren is going to do. He also makes a very big deal about what move won, going so far as to demonstrate that rock blunts scissors and paper covers rock and scissors cut paper. This practically guarantees that his opponent will copy Derren's last move. To win, all Derren has to do is beat his last move.

So it goes like this in the video: Derren explains the rules, shows scissors. Opponent throws scissors and Derren beats it with rock. Opponent throws rock and Derren beats it with paper. Opponent throws paper and Derren beats it with scissors. Now he asks the audience if they want him to win, lose, or draw. They say win, so he beats scissors with rock. Next someone in the crowd wanted a draw, so he draws rock with rock.

He has several examples where he turns away, closes his eyes, but it's all childs play because he has their minds wrapped around his little finger.

I doubt this works on anybody who plays RPS on a regular basis.

Comment author: Vladimir 03 January 2016 10:42:41PM *  1 point [-]

Can't believe this got three upvotes on lesswrong.

Derren Brown doesn't use "psychological techniques" for his tricks. They are just tricks plain and simple. Either this was a confederate, or he repeated it until he got the result he wanted. His whole schtick is to pretend to be using "NLP" or some mind trick, when in reality it's your old fashion I've-got-a-camera-looking-at-your-answer trick. He's pretty upfront about this in his books.

The genius of it is that precisely by not pretending to be "magic", he actually draws in a sophisticated audience who genuinely thinks he's using psychological mind games. Precisely by eliminating his status as an omniscient magical guru, he gains status as an intuitive social genius which is more impressive for a modern audience.

Comment author: Simon4 22 September 2008 04:12:52AM 1 point [-]


First, great blog.

Second, it would be nice to hear back from Ken. I'd like to know if the experiment suggested by Ian yielded any results (even though I think that it could be done much more rigorously than what he's suggested with little additional effort).

Third, I want to raise two points about Eliezer's post:

a) Nothing can raise the probability of something being true if this something isn't logically/mathematically possible. No matter how much evidence we find that apparently supports the claim that there's a logical contradiction in our universe, we should still believe that the claim is false and continue to look for the truth.

I'm no expert, but it seems absolutely obvious to me that a non-reducible 'entity' is a logical impossibility. I think you'll agree with me that another way to say that something is reducible is to say that the complexity of its behavior is precisely equivalent (in some mathematical sense) to the complexity of its nature, i.e. behavioral complexity must equal compositional complexity. Therefore a non-reducible entity is an entity whose behavioral complexity is greater than its compositional complexity. The supernatural, as defined by Richard Carrier, is the most extreme case of this, since the human mind is the most behaviorally complex thing that we know of.

The question I want to ask is this: Is there really a difference between behavioral complexity and compositional complexity? Aren't these two categories something that we humans have made up completely arbitrarily? Aren't compositional and behavioral complexity one and the same? Therefore, isn't the claim that something is compositionally simple but behaviorally complex exactly like the claim that that 2 = 999?

b) What is the distinction between "the discovery of information transfer between the brains in the absence of any known material connection between them" and, say, the observation made by primitive human beings thousands of years ago that striking two stones together near a piece of wood results in this weird phenomenon they decided to call "fire"? Fire has pretty complex behavior, it's practically alive according to some definitions of 'life'. And of course, there was no known reductionist explanation for fire back then. If these primitive humans had been Bayesians, would they then have been justified in favoring the supernatural explanation that a sentient flame-spirit is responsible for the existence and behavior of fire? In fact, if you're right, wouldn't the supernaturalistic explanation be preferable _in every single case_ where there is no known naturalistic explanation for something?

Comment author: mantis 14 August 2012 05:24:52PM *  0 points [-]

The SF writer Catherine Asaro came up with a workable explanation of empathy/telepathy that doesn't require non-reductionism, though I don't think it's all that plausible; it's based around quantum entanglement between microstructures in the brains of psions in close proximity to one another (and a lot of hand-waving, of course). In her books, psi powers didn't evolve naturally, but were the result of extensive genetic tinkering by aliens with a far more advanced knowledge of genetics, neurology, and quantum physics than humans presently possess, enabling them to design new brain architecture from scratch, write the genetic code to build it, and insert that code into their subjects' genomes.

Comment author: Alex_Arendar 05 December 2015 04:20:32PM 0 points [-]

The conclusion is rather strong one, Eliezer destroys the dreams of millions of people who are reading books about meditation, mind-control and other stuff. But this conclusion is stated at the end of the sequence which was preparing us all the way through - so it is good and gives a good chance to reflect over it.

Comment author: ChristianKl 05 December 2015 04:45:20PM 1 point [-]

Eliezer destroys the dreams of millions of people

That seems naive. Why do you think ths argument would convince someone who meditates and has his spiritual experiences?

Comment author: Alex_Arendar 05 December 2015 07:53:21PM 0 points [-]

I said that with a humor. But as there are a lot of people who believe in dragons, who are on the supernatural end of the scale, there are rational people who are on the opposite end of the scale AND there are a lot of people in the middle. They are partially rational and partially they can believe that e.g. by practicing meditation or some other practices they may achieve SUPERNATURAL abilities. So Eliezer's post may convince some of them to abandone their "dreams" of supernatural. Sayint this I don't mean that meditation or other practices are irrational and bad, things are not black and white :)

Comment author: ChristianKl 05 December 2015 08:49:02PM 1 point [-]

They are partially rational and partially they can believe that e.g. by practicing meditation or some other practices they may achieve SUPERNATURAL abilities.

I don't think the talk about ontologically basic mental entities has much bearing on the expected amount of abilities you get through meditation. It has much more to do with whether you believe that certain people who meditate a lot of gained extraordinary abilities. Whether or not those are due to ontologically basic mental entities is not that important.

Comment author: gjm 05 December 2015 11:38:44PM 0 points [-]

Some abilities are much easier to believe in if you already believe in ontologically basic mental entities or something very like them, just because they're hard to fit into a more modern/scientific/reductionist/naturalist understanding of the world.

Comment author: ChristianKl 06 December 2015 01:11:24AM 1 point [-]

I think it's reasonable to believe that there are no ontologically basic mental entities because you don't believe that anybody demostrated telepathy.

If you however believe that the data supports telepathy, then I find it strange to say "I defy the data, because I don't believe in tologically basic mental entities" as your whole case for there not being ontologically basic mental entities was about there not being telepathy.

Comment author: gjm 06 December 2015 10:21:40AM 0 points [-]

I don't think it's true for many people that their main reason for not believing in OBMEs is that there appears to be no telepathy. If I disbelieve in OBMEs because I don't see how to fit them into a reductionist understanding of the world that has, on my view, achieved such stunning empirical success that it would need overwhelming evidence to overturn it, then defying the data when presented with apparent evidence for telepathy isn't so unreasonable.

(Someone doing that should of course consider possible mechanisms for telepathy that don't involve OBMEs, and should reconsider their objection to OBMEs if enough apparent evidence for them turns up. I am not defending outright immovability.)

Comment author: ChristianKl 06 December 2015 01:47:54PM 0 points [-]

If I disbelieve in OBMEs because I don't see how to fit them into a reductionist understanding of the world that has, on my view, achieved such stunning empirical success that it would need overwhelming evidence to overturn it

Steam-engine weren't build because of reductionist thinking but because of empirical experimentation. When medicine was reductionist based instead of empirical based it is commonly believed that it killed more people than it cured. When it comes to new drugs 90% of those where there reductionist reason to believe they work turn out to flawed.

I think you get very soon into problems if you think that only things that you can explain from the ground up exist. Pratically I think it's very worthwhile to have a state of non-judgement where you let experience speak for itself without commiting to any deeper notion of the way things are.

Of course I grant that there are people who deeply believe in the naturalist view of the world and therefore will reject telepathy on those grounds. On the other hand I don't see why someone who has had a few spiritual experiences and seeks for more spiritual experiences should have that committment or why he should adopt it based on the reasoning of this article.

Comment author: gjm 06 December 2015 08:45:58PM 2 points [-]

It sounds to me like you're arguing against a straw man. Reductionism doesn't mean believing the proposition "Nothing exists that I can't explain from the ground up". It means a commitment to trying to explain things from the ground up (or, actually, from the top down, but with the intention of getting as near as possible to whatever ground there may be), and to remaining dissatisfied with explanations in so far as they appeal to things whose properties aren't clearly specified.

Steam-engine weren't build because of reductionist thinking but because of empirical experimentation.

You say that as if "reductionist" and "empirical" are opposing ideas somehow. Of course they aren't; reductionism and empiricism are two of the key ideas that make science work. You do everything you can to find out what actually happens, and you try to build theories as detailed and bullshit-free as you can that explains what you've found, and then you look for more empirical evidence to help decide between those theories, and then you look for better theories that match what you've found, and so on.

When medicine was reductionist based instead of empirical based [...]

Not being empirical is a terrible mistake. It's not clear exactly what and when you're talking about, but do you have any grounds for thinking that the bad results you describe were the result of too much reductionism rather than of not enough empiricism?

When it comes to new drugs [...]

Most new drugs don't work, quite true. Do you have any reason to think drug discovery would work better if it were somehow driven by a less reductionist view of how drugs work? Would you, if so, like to be more specific about what you have in mind? (And ... has anyone actually done it, saved lots of lives, and got rich?)

if you think that only things that you can explain from the ground up exist

Who thinks that? (Thinking that certainly isn't what I mean by reductionism.)

I don't see why someone who has had a few spiritual experiences [...] should have that commitment [sc. to naturalism] or why he should adopt it based on the reasoning of this article.

The article isn't claiming to make a compelling case for naturalism, so I think Eliezer would agree with the last part of that. As to the first part, it sounds (but maybe I'm misunderstanding) as if you are saying that having had "a few spiritual experiences" constitutes strong evidence against naturalism. It's probably true that having "spiritual experiences" tends to make people less likely to be naturalists, but it's not at all clear to me why they are strong evidence against naturalism. There's nothing in naturalism to suggest that people shouldn't have such experiences.

(Unless you mean outright miraculous experiences. Those might be very good evidence against naturalism. By an extraordinary coincidence, they also appear to be very rare and to evaporate when examined closely.)

Comment author: ChristianKl 06 December 2015 09:34:17PM *  2 points [-]

Do you have any reason to think drug discovery would work better if it were somehow driven by a less reductionist view of how drugs work? Would you, if so, like to be more specific about what you have in mind?

The QS movement is an alternative to reductionism. As a concrete example I believe that we should fund trials for vitamin D3 in the morning vs. vitamin D3 in the evening based on self-reports that people found vitamin D3 in the morning to be more helpful. I think those empiric experience should drive research priorities instead of research priorities being driven by molecular biological findings.

QS profits a lot from better technical equipment. Additionally we likely want to get better at developing phenomelogical abilities of select individuals to perceive and write down what goes on in their own bodies. In addition to qualitative descriptions those people also should do quantitave predictions over various QS metrics and calibrate their credence on those metrics.

As to the first part, it sounds (but maybe I'm misunderstanding) as if you are saying that having had "a few spiritual experiences" constitutes strong evidence against naturalism.

The position for which I'm arguing is empiricism. Letting real world feedback guide your actions instead of being committed to theories. I think that there are cases where committment to naturalism leads to people making worse predictions than people who are committed to empiricism and simply letting the data speak for itself.

If I take someone with a standard STEM background and put him in an enviroment conductive to spiritual experiences I think that the person who's more open to updating their beliefs through data will make better predictions than one committed to his preconveived notions. At the process updating would optimally more about letting go off beliefs than about changing beliefs.