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Exclude the supernatural? My worldview is up for grabs.

23 Post author: r_claypool 25 June 2011 03:46AM

Background

I was raised in the Churches of Christ and my family is all very serious about Christianity. About 3 years ago, I started to ask some hard questions, and the answers from other Christians were very unsatisfying. I used to believe that the Bible was, you know, inspired by a loving God, but its endorsement of genocide, the abuse of slaves, and the mistreatment of women and children really started to bother me.

I set out to study these issues as much as I could. I stayed up past midnight for weeks reading what Christians have to say, and this process triggered a real crisis of faith. What started out as a search for answers on Biblical genocide led me to places like commonsenseatheism.com. I learned that the Bible has serious credibility problems on lots of issues that no one ever told me about. Wow.

My Question

Now I'm pretty sure that the God of the Bible is man-made and Jesus of Nazareth was probably a failed prophet, but I don't have good reasons to reject the supernatural all together. I'm working through the sequences, but this process is slow. I will probably struggle with this question for months, maybe longer.

Excluding the Supernatural was interesting, but it left me wanting a more thorough explanation. Where do you think I should go from here? Should I just continue reading the sequences, and re-read them until the ideas gel? I'm coming from 30 years of Sunday School level thinking. It's not like I grew up with words like "epistemology" and "epiphenomenalism". If there is no supernatural, and I can be confident about that, I will need to re-evaluate a lot of things. My worldview is up for grabs.

Comments (92)

Comment author: grouchymusicologist 25 June 2011 04:26:11AM 20 points [-]

You need reasons to include the supernatural. Do you have any?

Comment author: r_claypool 25 June 2011 12:36:50PM 12 points [-]

You know, that's a surprisingly good point. In all my thousands of prayers and efforts to connect with God, I don't have even one single experience that was unambiguously out-of-this-world.

Comment author: lukeprog 25 June 2011 07:36:30AM 8 points [-]

This is correct. If someone is going to add something with such high Kolmogorov complexity as non-physical minds to their ontology, they'd better have a really good reason for doing so.

Comment author: XiXiDu 25 June 2011 09:38:36AM *  15 points [-]

...add something with such high Kolmogorov complexity as non-physical minds to their ontology...

Translation:

Words like "supernatural" demand further explanation. That is because words like "supernatural" are vague and using them in your arguments causes your arguments to become opaque. And the validity of opaque arguments is hard to judge. You have to make your arguments more transparent by defining your terms.

Reducing the vagueness of words like "supernatural", by being more specific, or by naming concrete examples, causes your argument to become more complex (technically the complexity is already comprised in the vagueness of your terms, but ignore that for now). Your argument will be made up of a lot of additional sentences that can be false. The conclusion of an argument that is made up of a lot of statements that can be false is more unlikely to be true. That is because complex arguments can fail in a lot of different ways. You need to support each part of the argument that can be true or false and you can therefore fail to support one or more of its parts, which in turn will render the overall conclusion false.

Consider the above and what it means to accept that the supernatural does exist. If you claim that there is a category of things labeled "supernatural" you will have to define what you mean and consequently support each step of your definition. Can you be more specific, can you name some concrete examples of things that fit into the category you label "supernatural"? And more importantly, are you able to provide argumentative or evidence based support for your category?

An example of argumentative support in favor of the category of things that you call "supernatural" would be able to explain why things that you believe to belong to that category do not fit into any other category, e.g. the category that is labeled "natural". Consider an arbitrary "natural" element, can you explain what it would take for that element to become "supernatural"?

An example of evidence based support would be able to tell how you anticipate the world to change if the category you label "supernatural" would suddenly cease to exist. Can you explain what caused you to accept the existence of "supernatural" things, what necessitated it?

If everything would be the same without a category labeled "supernatural", why don't you abandon it?

Comment author: Will_Newsome 26 June 2011 03:17:50AM *  2 points [-]

Be careful not to assume the conclusion, e.g. "Non-physical minds have high K complexity because my preferred Turing language assigns high K complexity to non-physical minds (and my preferred Turing language makes sense, dammit!).". The high K complexity isn't want makes us suspicious of "non-physical" phenomena, it's all the reasons that make our chosen ontology the pragmatic one. As of yet we can't get an agent to formally "update" its Turing language or choose a "natural" one, though SI folk are very interested in that problem. Steve Rayhawk had some interesting and related ideas about extracting bits of Chaitin's constant from computation latent in the environment, which sneakily highlights some themes of Friendliness.

Comment author: Peterdjones 26 June 2011 03:31:26AM 0 points [-]

In things like Cartesian Dualism, mind stuff is supposed to have mental properties as essential and irreducible features. Cartesian minds, are , conroversially, "without moving parts". Surely that would make them low in complexity.

Comment author: Will_Newsome 26 June 2011 04:18:14AM 0 points [-]

(Voted back up to 0.) If you downvoted Peterdjones, please, stop that. He's doing an excellent job at showing how positions like dualism aren't completely stupid, and downvoting him is the sort of behavior that makes LW echo chamber-y. It makes sense to downvote someone if they say something that sounds false without good explanation; I say things that sound like nonsense all the time and it's understandable that I get downvoted for it, even if I know it's due to misunderstanding. But Peterdjones is writing comprehensible and informative comments and I see no good reason to downvote them. If there is a good reason please explain it.

Comment author: Will_Newsome 26 June 2011 04:07:42AM *  0 points [-]

Right. It gets kind of funny, though, when you chase that a little further onto a tangent. Human minds think that "without moving parts" is simple because of their mechanical intuitions, and humans got their mechanical intuitions because they evolved in a universe with straightforward physical laws. Or! Human minds think "without moving parts" is simple because of their mechanical intuitions, and human minds got their mechanical intuitions because mechanical intuition is a convergent property of minds, and wherever you have a mind you will find mechanical intuition, via non-fallacious teleology. Put another way, that minds were preceded by some evolutionary process is questionable, or contingent and trivial if "true". Given the latter interpretation, pointing out that human minds evolved is just the genetic fallacy. Given the former interpretation, though, the latter can conceivably be called the teleological fallacy. Dissolving the debate requires resolving the inherent logical uncertainty, and that is a little trickier than some seem to think.

Comment author: Peterdjones 26 June 2011 02:51:11PM 3 points [-]

Put another way, that minds were preceded by some evolutionary process is questionable, or contingent and trivial if "true". Given the latter interpretation, pointing out that human minds evolved is just the genetic fallacy. Given the former interpretation, though, the latter can conceivably be called the teleological fallacy. Dissolving the debate requires resolving the inherent logical uncertainty, and that is a little trickier than some seem to think.

I didn't follow that.

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 25 June 2011 06:56:25AM 18 points [-]

This. The scientific community - in other words, millions of people working for hundreds of years, using all the reasonable means they could come up with - has so far found no trace of the supernatural. In order to go against their work, you'd need some rather heavy evidence. Do you have any?

See also Privileging the Hypothesis and Burdensome Details.

Also, you say you don't have a good reason to reject the supernatural altogether. That suggests that there are some specific supernatural things you still believe in. Be specific - exactly what are those? What makes you tempted to accept them as true?

"The supernatural" is such a broad category that asking "should I believe in the supernatural or not" is really a rather abstract question, and hard to give a definitive answer to. It's much easier to concentrate on the specifics. Take every thing you are tempted to belive in and might classify as supernatural and ask separately, "should I believe in this or not?".

Comment author: r_claypool 25 June 2011 02:12:22PM 6 points [-]

I don't have any supernatural events or beings in mind, but I am tempted to say that consciousness, free will and moral absolutes are evidence that the world is made of something more than atoms. Thanks for responding.

Comment author: gjm 25 June 2011 05:59:41PM 12 points [-]

I think the (very widely held) idea that consciousness is evidence that the world isn't purely material is founded on a mistake.

So the argument seems to go something like this. "Imagine a mind, or the nearest possible thing to a mind, made up entirely of material stuff. Can you see where its consciousness comes from? No? Why, then, clearly minds must be immaterial, or have immaterial components, or something of the sort."

But if you actually try to turn this into an argument that would convince someone who didn't already want to believe in immaterial minds/souls/spirits, you'll find that there's a huge gap in it. It purports to show that "minds are entirely material" (call this M) is less plausible than "minds are not entirely material" (not-M) by looking only at consequences of M and not comparing them with consequences of not-M.

If the argument had turned up an actual logical contradiction as a consequence of M, that would be fair enough: if M leads to contradiction then not-M must be better (unless M and not-M are both actually nonsense of some sort). But if M is merely improbable or counterintuitive or currently lacking good explanations, you can't compare M with not-M until you've also looked to see whether not-M has the same problems.

In this instance, it's quite true that it's hard to see how material stuff could give rise to the experience of consciousness. Fair enough. Is it any easier to see how immaterial stuff (or immaterial non-stuff) could do it? I don't think so. -- Other than by begging the question, the theist's favourite technique. You just say, e.g., that by definition souls give rise to consciousness, and then of course belief in souls "explains" consciousness. But of course this is simply cheating: there's no actual explanation there, nothing more than a bare baseless assertion. You could just as well say that by definition matter gives rise to consciousness when it's appropriately organized. Which would be daft, and materialists don't actually say that, but that's not a weakness of the materialists' position. (More often, the theist doesn't say in so many words "I define souls to be things that give rise to consciousness". They simply take that for granted, and no one notices because it's such a familiar move.)

The exact same sort of broken logical structure is found in typical theistic (or supernaturalist) arguments from free will and moral absolutes.

Comment author: Peterdjones 25 June 2011 07:13:43PM 2 points [-]

Fair enough. Is it any easier to see how immaterial stuff (or immaterial non-stuff) could do it? I don't think so. -- Other than by begging the question, the theist's favourite technique. You just say, e.g., that by definition souls give rise to consciousness

Or you can say that consc.is fundamental and does not arise from anything else. The physicalist takes some things (eg matter/energy)nas inexplicable fundamentals., The dualist takes one more thing as an inexplicable fundamental. I am not particualrly selling dualism, but it remains popular becaude it is not as obviously flawed as you make out.

Comment author: Desrtopa 25 June 2011 07:38:40PM *  4 points [-]

But that comes right back to the question of why consciousness has such a strong relation to the physical state of the brain. If consciousness is is fundamental and doesn't arise from anything else, why does it behave as if it's a function of the brain? For positing an additional entity of such complexity, it doesn't do a very good job explaining our observations.

Comment author: Peterdjones 26 June 2011 03:12:32PM 0 points [-]

Contemporary dualists are happy to accept that the Easy Problem aspects of consciousness have neurological explanations. The focus is on the Hard Problem aspect of qualia. Since sensory information is already present in the neurological account , the only gap that needs to be plugged is adding phenomenal feels to the existing information.

Comment author: gjm 25 June 2011 08:31:37PM 1 point [-]

Sure, you can just say that consciousness is fundamental. That's exactly the same sort of question-begging as just saying that consciousness arises from souls. Assuming something as fundamental reduces the merit of your theory just as much as failing to explain it (since assuming it as fundamental does, in fact, fail to explain it) so once again there's no explanatory advantage to the non-materialist position here.

(Also, if you take consciousness as fundamental then the intricate relationships between consciousness and matter are highly mysterious. If consciousness arises from what the brain does, it's at least unsurprising in general terms that what you're conscious of relates to what your brain's doing, that interfering with the brain can interfere with your consciousness, etc. If it's some magical independent thing, how does that happen?)

Comment author: Peterdjones 25 June 2011 08:39:40PM *  2 points [-]

Sure, you can just say that consciousness is fundamental. That's exactly the same sort of question-begging as just saying that consciousness arises from souls.

Is it question begging to say <something physical> is fundamental?

if you take consciousness as fundamental then the intricate relationships between consciousness and matter are highly mysterious.

Are they?If you take (eg) matter and space as both fundamental, are you then unable to explain the complex relationships between them?

Comment author: gjm 25 June 2011 09:22:54PM 1 point [-]

Is it question begging to say <something physical> is fundamental?

It could be. For instance, imagine someone (years ago) wondering why and how things burn. Let's suppose that this was before there was a really good scientific account of burning. Then they might say "Conventional science has failed; we should therefore adopt my theory instead. My theory says that there is a fundamental property of things, called their flammability; things burn readily when their flammability is high. Burning consists of turning things with high flammability into things with low flammability." That would be question-begging, in relation to explaining burning, in roughly the same way as taking consciousness as fundamental is question-begging in relation to explaining consciousness.

I suppose it could in principle turn out that consciousness is fundamental. (Being question-begging is a defect in an argumentative move; the proposition(s) one asserts in the process might still be correct.) But the fact that we don't have anything close to a complete physical explanation of consciousness cannot be a good reason for thinking that consciousness is fundamental; there would have to be other reasons, if someone were to be rationally convinced that consciousness is fundamental.

(A sufficiently complete and sustained failure to find physical explanations for consciousness might be sufficient reason for provisionally taking consciousness as fundamental. But as I've already said elsewhere in this thread, that isn't in fact the epistemic situation we find ourselves in.)

Are they?

They seem to be; at any rate I've never heard any sort of explanation, starting with "consciousness as fundamental" premises, that gives any inkling of how those relationships might come about.

As for matter and space: in order to do justice to the relationships between them, physicists don't exactly take them as separate fundamental things. But that's a quibble, indeed, a sufficiently detailed theory about what consciousness does and how it relates to the other things known to science might in principle explain those intricate relationships. But it turns out that people wanting to take consciousness as fundamental never actually have such detailed theories, or proposals for how such theories might be found, or any sign of being interested in finding such theories. This is getting into territory I've already commented on elsewhere in the thread, though, so I'll leave it there.

Comment author: Peterdjones 25 June 2011 10:16:53PM *  1 point [-]

Is it question begging to say <something physical> is fundamental?

It could be.

Question beggingness is an inherent property of arguments: it shouldn;t depend on external factors.

There have been bad explanations (NB explanations aren't arguments) of the form "X is fundamental", some physicalist, some not. There have also been good ones. They can't all be bad because they are question begging: if one is question-begging, all are, but not all are bad. What makes them bad or good is other, complex factors

But the fact that we don't have anything close to a complete physical explanation of consciousness cannot be a good reason for thinking that consciousness is fundamental; there would have to be other reasons, if someone were to be rationally convinced that consciousness is fundamental.

Again: would that apply to all "X is fundamental" arguments?

A sufficiently complete and sustained failure to find physical explanations for consciousness might be sufficient reason for provisionally taking consciousness as fundamental. But as I've already said elsewhere in this thread, that isn't in fact the epistemic situation we find ourselves in.

That is a matter of judgment.

I've never heard any sort of explanation, starting with "consciousness as fundamental" premises, that gives any inkling of how those relationships might come about.

Those would be the factors that make the posit that consciousness is fundamental (part of) a good explanation. We don't have a good dualist explanation; many think we don;t have a good physicalist explanation either.

But the point remains that dualist (or, as I prefer, intrinsicist) explanations can't written off apriori. The devil's oin the details.

As for matter and space: in order to do justice to the relationships between them, physicists don't exactly take them as separate fundamental things.

Don't they? What's the space-time- matter energy unification theory?

Comment author: gjm 25 June 2011 11:03:00PM 0 points [-]

Question beggingness is an intrinsic property of arguments: it shouldn't depend on external factors.

It's an intrinsic property of arguments in contexts. Specifically, whether something is question-begging depends on what one's trying to prove.

Indeed explanations aren't arguments. The arguments we're talking about are ones of the form "Theory X is better than theory Y because it explains alleged facts F better". Merely saying "Consciousness (or whatever) is fundamental" is of course not question-begging. But if the existence, or some property, of consciousness is one of the alleged facts F, and if theory X simply postulates whatever property it is of consciousness, then a question is being begged.

Again: would that apply to all "X is fundamental" arguments?

I don't claim to be able to contemplate all imaginable arguments that say things are fundamental. But, in general, claiming that something's fundamental and just happens to have the properties it's known to have is a pretty weak move; and saying "Look, I've now given an explanation of whatever-it-is, so I'm doing better than you stupid people who are still looking for more complicated explanations" is invalid.

Those would be the factors that make the posit that consciousness is fundamental (part of) a good explanation.

I'm afraid I don't understand. Would you care to say a little more.

Don't they?

"Matter" isn't a first-class citizen in modern physics. There are a bunch of quantum fields, and things that happen to those fields produce the effects we call matter. (And other things that happen to those fields produce actually-quite-similar effects that we generally don't call matter, such as physical forces.) "Space" isn't quite a first-class citizen either; spacetime is; its geometry is determined by the matter-and-similar-stuff in it. I wouldn't say that space and matter (or spacetime and mass/energy) are exactly unified; my rather noncommital language ("don't exactly take them as separate fundamental things") was deliberate.

Comment author: hairyfigment 26 June 2011 04:04:20AM 0 points [-]

The physical world, as an explanation, clearly has more prior probability than the physical world plus fundamental consciousness. (And that seems like a more realistic form of the question. I have yet to see anyone, even those who like to link modern physics with consciousness, actually replace part of the first theory with a new assumption about fundamental consciousness.)

Posterior probability (meaning the amount of belief you should give to each theory after you look at all the evidence, r_claypool) seems trickier. Dualist philosophers might argue that when we fail to logically derive consciousness from the assumption of a physical world, that counts as evidence for dualism. But as gjm suggests, mainstream dualism doesn't seem to change our expectations about certain matters. In particular, it does not tell us when or in what situations a physical process leads to conscious experience. You'd have to describe those situations in ways a physicalist like me could agree with, and add that to our scientific picture of the world along with whatever assumptions dualism entails. On the face of it we can drop the last part and have a simpler theory.

My rant on taking the description of when consciousness happens as an additional law of reality got too long. Suffice it to say, that also seems wrong to me epistemologically.

Comment author: drethelin 25 June 2011 07:39:46PM 0 points [-]

Matter/energy are NOT inexplicable fundamentals. We have studied them, and can explain them in terms of photons, quarks, quantum wave functions, etc. These things may yet be ineffable, but Science only has inexplicables AFTER it has tried as hard as it can to explain. They did not START with the axioms "matter, and energy are inexplicable", even though they once were, and your example of dualists doing that is the exact core of the flawed reasoning of dualism. We cannot explain something, therefore we call it inexplicable, rather than trying to actually explain it.

Comment author: Peterdjones 25 June 2011 07:47:32PM *  0 points [-]

Quarks are made of matter/energy, not vice versa.

Note that it is not logically impossible to reductively explain everything in terms of nothing.

Science only has inexplicables AFTER it has tried as hard as it can to explain.

How do you know it has reached the point of "having tried as hard as it can"? Science certainly has tried to explain mind. Physicalists judge that more trying is needed; dualists judge that the "as hard as it can" point has been reached. Since no one can say in a definite, quantitive way where the point is, it remains a legitmiately a matter of personal judgment.

Comment author: gjm 25 June 2011 08:42:14PM 1 point [-]

Science can never be assumed to have tried as hard as it can; it's always possible that some new information will come along and explain something that wasn't explained before. So if you're thinking scientifically, the appropriate notion isn't "inexplicable" but "not explained as yet".

Anyone -- dualist or otherwise -- who says "OK, we've done enough now; time to give up" is engaged in thoroughly unscientific thinking. Since scientific thinking demonstrably works well, that's probably a bad thing.

(The above leaves some space for a sort of provisional dualism. You could say "So far, no physical explanation of consciousness is apparent. So we might as well treat it as an independent thing until such time as a physical explanation comes along." That would be fine if we had no information at all about the relationship between consciousness and matter. But in fact we do have some information. We have evidence that particular aspects of consciousness are related to particular bits of the brain and particular things the brain does. We have partial explanations, where some things about consciousness have somewhat-handwavy explanations in physical terms. And we have a long history of trying out non-physicalist hypotheses about things -- gods and ghosts and vital spirits and so forth -- and finding them, again and again, smashed to bits once knowledge advances far enough for them to come into contact with reality.)

Comment author: Peterdjones 25 June 2011 08:51:39PM *  0 points [-]

Science can never be assumed to have tried as hard as it can; it's always possible that some new information will come along and explain something that wasn't explained before.

So were the cases where, as a matter of fact, science has posited a new property or force (spin, colour charge, etc) illegitimate?

We have evidence that particular aspects of consciousness are related to particular bits of the brain

We have evidence that the N fundamentals of physics nonetheless interrelate.

ETA

And we have a long history of trying out non-physicalist hypotheses about things

Many explanations in terms of "let's say it is fundamental" have failed, but that does not mean the correct number of fundamentals is 0.

Comment author: gjm 25 June 2011 09:12:53PM 1 point [-]

So were the cases [...] illegitimate?

I have no idea why you're asking me that. That is: I see no reason why what you're commenting on gives any reason to think I might answer yes to it.

We have evidence that the N fundamentals of physics nonetheless interrelate.

Yup. And the richness of their interrelations is what makes it appropriate to classify them all as part of the same physical reality; and the level of detail in our ideas about those fundamentals is (part of) what makes our thinking about them scientific. So far, every attempt at postulating consciousness as fundamental has entirely failed to specify how consciousness relates to everything else (a cynic might surmise that this is because the people doing it want to be careful to avoid saying anything refutable, since they know they haven't taken the measures necessary to make it unlikely that they'd then get refuted). If those details were filled in -- which is part of what it would take to make sense of the observed relationship between consciousness and brains -- then "consciousness", even if still fundamental, would cease to be properly regarded as non-physical, and would become a fit subject for further scientific investigation. That would be an interesting outcome, but I don't expect it ever to happen, because I think what people saying "let's take consciousness as fundamental" want above all else is to keep scientific thinking away from the topic.

that does not mean the correct number of fundamentals is 0.

Of course it doesn't. (It's not clear that 0 is even possible.) But any time you propose that some high-level thing -- minds, life, etc. -- is fundamental, it's a reasonable guess that you're making a mistake; so far every attempt at doing that seems to have been wrong. (Whereas it's not true that every attempt at postulating anything as fundamental has failed.)

Comment author: XiXiDu 25 June 2011 04:12:08PM *  6 points [-]

Regarding morality. Systems can have properties that their parts alone do not. Morality is an objective property of a system that consists of a person that utters moral statements and the specific entity in, or feature of, the world that the statement identifies or denotes. Yet all all this can be explained in terms of lower level interactions. This does not contradict.

Regarding free will. Free will is a middleman. Consciousness between cause and effect. The intelligent refinement of causation into an effective agent. The sun at your back - your shadow in front. You are the shadow player. Nevertheless, to claim sovereignty is trying to get ahead of your own shadow. You imprint reality with a pattern of volition. But not without its implicit consent.

Some quotes that might highlight other problems, including consciousness :

Science is not in principle committed to the idea that there’s no afterlife or that the mind is identical to the brain (…) If it’s true that consciousness is being run like software on the brain and can – by virtue of ectoplasm or something else we don’t understand – be dissociated from the brain at death, that would be part of our growing scientific understanding of the world if we discover it (…) But there are very good reasons to think it’s not true. We know this from 150 years of neurology where you damage areas of the brain, and faculties are lost (…) You can cease to recognize faces, you can cease to know the names of animals but you still know the names of tools (…) What we’re being asked to consider is that you damage one part of the brain, and something about the mind and subjectivity is lost, you damage another and yet more is lost, [but] you damage the whole thing at death, we can rise off the brain with all our faculties in tact, recognizing grandma and speaking English!

Sam Harris’ Argument Against the Afterlife

One compelling reason not to believe the standard-issue God exists is the conspicuous fact that no one knows anything at all about it. That’s a tacit part of the definition of God – a supernatural being that no one knows anything about. The claims that are made about God bear no resemblance to genuine knowledge. This becomes immediately apparent if you try adding details to God’s CV: God is the eternal omnipotent benevolent omniscient creator of the universe, and has blue eyes. You see how it works. Eternal omnipotent benevolent omniscient are all simply ideal characteristics that a God ought to have; blue eyes, on the other hand, are particular, and if you say God has them it suddenly becomes obvious that no one knows that, and by implication that no one knows anything else either.

— Ophelia Benson on divine hiddenness.

The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent; but if we can come to terms with this indifference and accept the challenges of life within the boundaries of death — however mutable man may be able to make them — our existence as a species can have genuine meaning and fulfillment. However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.

— Stanley Kubrick

What can we make of someone who says that materialism implies meaninglessness? I can only conclude that if I took them to see Seurat’s painting “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte," they would earnestly ask me what on earth the purpose of all the little dots was.

The scourge of perverse-mindedness

A man can do what he wants, but not want what he wants.

— Arthur Schopenhauer

More generally, many of the objects demonstrated to be impossible in the previous posts in this series can appear possible as long as there is enough vagueness. For instance, one can certainly imagine an omnipotent being provided that there is enough vagueness in the concept of what “omnipotence” means; but if one tries to nail this concept down precisely, one gets hit by the omnipotence paradox. Similarly, one can imagine a foolproof strategy for beating the stock market (or some other zero sum game), as long as the strategy is vague enough that one cannot analyse what happens when that strategy ends up being used against itself. Or, one can imagine the possibility of time travel as long as it is left vague what would happen if one tried to trigger the grandfather paradox. And so forth. The “self-defeating” aspect of these impossibility results relies heavily on precision and definiteness, which is why they can seem so strange from the perspective of vague intuition.

— Terence Tao, The “no self-defeating object” argument, and the vagueness paradox

Comment author: Desrtopa 25 June 2011 02:43:20PM 5 points [-]

Free will is covered pretty extensively on this site, although as the wiki page suggests, it can be a useful experience to work out for yourself.

Moral absolutes are also addressed, but since I'm having trouble remembering the names of the articles, it's easier to simply ask; can you explain how we would observe the universe to be different if there were definitively no moral absolutes?

Consciousness is probably the least open-and-shut case of the three. Some reading is available here, but it might be quicker to deal with the question by asking this. Is the entirety of the consciousness contained in a supernatural entity? That is, is it an irreducible mental thing? If so, why does a person's mental state correspond so consistently to the physical state of their brain? If not, and the supernatural phenomenon merely translates the physical states into subjective experience, why suppose that something that doesn't follow the rules that every other known thing in existence does is the best explanation for this one thing, given that we've never found evidence of anything like that anywhere else?

Comment author: Peterdjones 25 June 2011 07:00:23PM *  0 points [-]

Free will is covered pretty extensively on this site, although as the wiki page suggests, it can be a useful experience to work out for yourself.

However, note that a necessary instruction is missing. You have to disregard the possibility of a theory of non-deflationary naturalistic libertarianism

Comment author: Will_Newsome 26 June 2011 03:03:26AM *  2 points [-]

It's important to note that talking about the world in terms of atoms and quarks is just using a particular language. The principle of Turing equivalence is relevant. (One weird idea is to talk about how many equivalent-of-bits it takes to specify the equivalent of Turing equivalence for the equivalent of a Turing language. "Analogy" is a cluster of confusing concepts!) Talking about souls isn't taboo, and in fact I find it useful sometimes. The important part is having an accurate model of the world such that you can make correct testable predictions, and in fact that's only important insofar as it helps you make correct decisions. Unfortunately, figuring out what "correct" means is an incredibly hard problem, and the language of moral absolutes is only so helpful. The important heuristic for using languages is to avoid the mind projection fallacy and instead remember that all maps can be inaccurate, including maps of maps.

Comment author: JenniferRM 28 June 2011 02:49:59AM 0 points [-]

If you want exposure to the best condensed version of coherent mechanical/redictionistic/scientific thinking about consciousness that I know about, watch Kristof Koch give a talk on the "Neural Correlates of Consciousness". This might help clear some things up?

Comment author: r_claypool 28 June 2011 03:42:25AM 0 points [-]

Thanks! I'll check it out.

Comment author: Armok_GoB 25 June 2011 09:40:23AM 5 points [-]

This. Absence of evidence IS in fact evidence of absence.

Comment author: Normal_Anomaly 25 June 2011 04:56:41PM 6 points [-]

This is an important point. R_claypool: Here is the mathematical explanation of why absence of evidence is evidence of absence, if you're interested.

Comment author: scientism 25 June 2011 04:53:05PM 8 points [-]

My advice would be to ignore natural/supernatural and focus on true/false instead. From the perspective of truth the category of "natural" is superfluous.

Comment author: jfm 27 June 2011 07:12:29PM 1 point [-]

I was going to comment along similar lines. Most people probably have a concept of "supernatural" that's defined by a grab-bag of phenomena. If you stop wondering about whether "the supernatural" exists, and whether various allegedly supernatural phenomena (e.g. transubstantiation, ghosts, spoon-bending) exist, and if it happens that they do, how they work, you'll be well on your way to not needing the concept of "supernatural".

Comment author: TrE 25 June 2011 06:12:54AM 7 points [-]

When I was joining, I also held a worldview which was plainly wrong. I read the sequences, but they did not very much help at changing my mind. I accepted what was written there, but still thought I was, somehow, correct. I changed my mind only due to the #lesswrong IRC channel (a kind of chatroom) on the freenode network. (for a web interface, see here). We can help you by quickly answering any questions you have, although this can not substitute reading the sequences.

Comment author: ArisKatsaris 25 June 2011 06:50:38PM 3 points [-]

Your experience sounds interesting -- I would encourage you to offer bit more detail about what you believed that was wrong, and what was the exact thing that made you change your mind.

Comment author: TrE 25 June 2011 08:21:58PM *  6 points [-]

I was a Rand-ish egoist, although unaware of the fact that someone like Rand existed. Also, it was the time when the earthquake in Japan happened, and when I stated that I didn't care at all for those who died, it started. I cannot state what exactly changed my mind - first, I do not recall it precisely enough and second, I don't think it was a single argument that caused me to change this worldview. Instead, it felt like one hundred good arguments sieging my worldview, rendering it indefensible.

Upon realization of this, I changed it.

This change was actually not one change, I recall three distinct changes, each of which was, although pretty radical, manageable. In the beginning, I held the view that (1) I should be an egoist, seeking to maximize my own happiness/pleasure/whatnotelse; (2) everyone should be an egoist, caring only for themselves.

Of course, at that time, this seemed pretty obvious to me, but as my worldview was besieged by many good arguments, I recall changing it to this one: (1) I want to be an egoist; (2) Other people might not be egoists, they might not want to be and there is no reason why they should be.

This seemes more defensible, but upon further reading of the sequences (and discussing them, reading more, realizing that there still were quite a few good arguments and they didn't stop nagging) my worldview again changed, and guess what came now: (1) I want to be a utilitarian; (2) Other people might hold different worldviews.

From this, it was only a short, not-at-all-painful step, yet a, as I guess, necessary one, to get to: (1) I want to be a utilitarian (2) Others should want to be utilitarians as well, if they have similar values, if they are normal, empathic humans (and even if not, there might be good reasons)

I guess changing (2) was necessary for changing (1), and changing (2) again strenghtened my worldview. In order to change your mind, you must first allow yourself changing your mind, and then you can change it.

Comment author: Nisan 25 June 2011 05:03:12AM 7 points [-]

Cool, changing your worldview is a special thing! Many of us here have been where you are now. As you continue reading the sequences, I suggest you leave yourself a line of retreat.

Comment author: orthonormal 25 June 2011 04:12:09AM 7 points [-]

One issue that might be important for you is the question of what morality means without a supernatural backing. In that light, I recommend What Would You Do Without Morality? and The Moral Void if you haven't already read them.

I've now concluded that morality has a perfectly normal meaning without any supernatural backing (and a meaning, moreover, which justifies trying to be moral), but it took me a while after leaving my religion to reach that conclusion– and in the meantime, it was a relief to realize that I simply wanted friends, family and even strangers to flourish and be well, even without a philosophical justification for that desire.

Comment author: mutterc 26 June 2011 09:05:49PM 4 points [-]

Attempt to make beliefs pay rent, and beliefs in the supernatural will likely melt away as they fail to constrain your anticipated experiences.

And don't worry too much about supernatural beliefs. Just keep trying to make your beliefs correspond to reality, and see where that goes.

Comment author: hairyfigment 26 June 2011 03:11:44AM 4 points [-]

Kudos for having the courage to admit your fundamental beliefs need work.

Comment author: sark 25 June 2011 11:24:12AM 4 points [-]

Supernaturalism is a distraction. Theologists defend supernaturalism as an indirect way of defending whatever God they want to believe in. See http://www.uncrediblehallq.net/2011/06/24/atheism-is-just-thinking-there-arent-any-gods/.

The sequences are not specifically tailored to convince people of atheism. They are rather a more general set of tools in going about and reasoning about the world. So don't over-ascribe relevance to atheism many of the philosophical ideas you see in there.

Comment author: CuSithBell 25 June 2011 03:07:43PM 3 points [-]

As I see others are addressing your question, I'll just say: congratulations! Welcome to the world. Let us know if you need any help with anything!

Comment author: falenas108 25 June 2011 04:02:42AM 4 points [-]

Have you read the entire Reductionism sequence? That would be the first step. The other big ones related to your query are How to Actually Change Your Mind (which isn't telling you that you should, just explains the general process of how to evaluate a new idea that might shatter your world view), and Mysterious Answers to Mysterious Questions.

Re-reading would be a good idea after you've read these once.

And of course, the other part of the sequences are good, just not related to what you're looking for.

Comment author: lucidfox 28 June 2011 11:00:05AM 0 points [-]

It's only tangentially related to the subject, but if you believe the Bible is sexist - and I very much agree - the next logical step in my eyes would be avoiding gender-loaded language, such as "man-made".

Comment author: r_claypool 28 June 2011 09:13:18PM *  9 points [-]

The Bible was literally man-made. I really doubt that women had much to do with its original authorship or redaction history.

Comment author: CharlieSheen 07 July 2011 07:39:35AM *  1 point [-]

However the interpretation of the bible by various theologians was about as influenced by women as say physics, chemistry or evolutionary biology. In other words not very much either, but its not hard to come up with one or two influential women.

Comment author: r_claypool 28 June 2011 03:46:21AM 0 points [-]

I just want to say one final "Thank you" to everyone for contributing. See you on #lesswrong IRC!

Comment author: Will_Newsome 25 June 2011 08:56:04AM -3 points [-]

I hate to be that guy, but could you list examples of what would be the set of supernatural phenomena conditional on the existence of such a set?

Comment author: r_claypool 25 June 2011 04:20:31PM 0 points [-]

One of the core beliefs of Orthodox Judaism is that God appeared at Mount Sinai and said in a thundering voice, "Yeah, it's all true." From a Bayesian perspective that's some darned unambiguous evidence of a superhumanly powerful entity. (Albeit it doesn't prove that the entity is God per se, or that the entity is benevolent - it could be alien teenagers.) The vast majority of religions in human history - excepting only those invented extremely recently - tell stories of events that would constitute completely unmistakable evidence if they'd actually happened. -- Religion's Claim

A lot of miracle stories, if they really happened, would be best explained by someone tinkering with natural laws, don't you think?

Comment author: Desrtopa 27 June 2011 07:09:16AM 2 points [-]

Even if the miracle stories actually happened as described, Sufficiently Advanced Technology would explain them just as well, and is probably a more likely explanation even if it doesn't fit our narrative conventions for miracle stories.

Comment author: [deleted] 25 June 2011 04:32:57PM *  1 point [-]

It depends. If the "tinkering with natural laws" explanation is really, really complex, then mass hallucination can be more likely.

To generalize the point further, phrases like "best explained" tend to confuse the likelihood ratio P(evidence|hypothesis) with the posterior probability P(hypothesis|evidence). Remember, you must always be mindful of the prior probability.

Comment author: Will_Newsome 26 June 2011 02:43:22AM 2 points [-]

Be careful not to privilege the scientific prior, though. Somewhere between the inability to justify induction and the inability to justify your interpretation of the evidence is some tricky argumentation that might be flawed. E.g. in some ontologies there's an upper bound on the confidence you can have that we're not in an ironic tragedy written by God to mock all those who fall to the cunning of the transhuman called Satan and thus aspire to false knowledge. To a non-trivial extent violating the laws of physics only has high K complexity if you assume the conclusion that it has high K complexity.

Comment author: [deleted] 26 June 2011 03:17:31AM *  1 point [-]

Fair point. How, then, can we reasonably assign a prior distribution on events whose complexity depends almost entirely on ontology?

Comment author: Will_Newsome 26 June 2011 03:34:57AM *  1 point [-]

/shrugs. I might be out of my depth here, and would not be surprised if someone corrects me, so take everything with a grain of salt. ("Someone" probably being someone with extensive knowledge of decision theory, though.) But. In the case of "Are we being simulated by a bastard?" we can try to extrapolate from human psychology using the kind of reasoning found in Omohundro's basic AI drives. It probably ends up such that we can use that kind of reference class forecasting combined with pragmatic considerations to make predictions/decisions that are "good enough" in some objective sense. E.g. even if we are being simulated by a bastard, we're probably also in other simulations that matter more to us, and assuming what we suspect matters is what matters more "objectively", whatever the hell that means, then we should pragmatically act as if we're (mostly) acting from within non-bastard-simulated contexts --- though we might update based on (logical?) evidence.

I think the important point is that such reasoning sounds significantly less impressive/authoritative than "your hypothesis has too many burdensome details". It worries me when people start wielding the sword of Bayes, partially because the math isn't "fundamental" when there are are "copies" of you---which there almost certainly are---and partially because it gives a veneer of technicality that makes it naively seem impossible to argue against, which is bad for epistemic hygiene. But my worries might be more paranoia than anything legitimate.

Comment author: Will_Newsome 26 June 2011 03:50:04AM *  0 points [-]

(logical?)

I do not know what to call this kind of evidence outside of technical decision theory discussion. "Logical" is the obvious choice, and that's the decision theory name for it, but it's only 'logical' in an abstract way. Maybe it's the most accurate word though, and I'm just not familiar with the etymology. "Platonic evidence" (or evidence) feels a little more accurate to me, 'cuz you can talk about an observation carrying both physical evidence and Platonic evidence without thinking that Platonic evidence entails having to perform explicit logical operations or anything like that. (Likewise you can resolve Platonic uncertainty without recourse to anything that looks like formal logic.) Eh, whatever, "logical uncertainty" is fine. (Related words: acausal, timeless, teleological.)

Comment author: Larks 25 June 2011 09:52:50AM 0 points [-]

Are you an empty set atheist?

Comment author: Will_Newsome 25 June 2011 10:49:28AM *  -3 points [-]

Hm, "set" in English doesn't mean the same thing as "set" in set theory, I think. Computer programmers and mathematicians have taken all the commonsense words and perverted them to mean alien things. I reject your ontology.

Edit: In case it wasn't clear, I'm half-joking, and accept Ben's correction.