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Religious and Rational?

6 Gleb_Tsipursky 09 February 2016 08:12PM

Reverend Caleb Pitkin, an aspiring rationalist and United Methodist Minister, wrote an article about combining religion and rationality which was recently published on the Intentional Insights blog. He's the only Minister I know who is also an aspiring rationalist, so I thought it would be an interesting piece for Less Wrong as well. Besides, it prompted an interesting discussion on the Less Wrong Facebook group, so I thought some people here who don't look at the Facebook group might be interested in checking it out as well. Caleb does not have enough karma to post, so I am posting it on his behalf, but he will engage with the comments.



Religious and Rational?


“Wisdom shouts in the street; in the public square she raises her voice.”

Proverbs 1:20 Common English Bible

The Biblical book of Proverbs is full of imagery of wisdom personified as a woman calling and extorting people to come to her and listen.  The wisdom contained in Proverbs is not just spiritual wisdom but also contains a large amount of practical wisdom and advice.  What might the wisdom of Proverbs and rationality have in common?  The wisdom literature in scripture was meant to help people make better and more effective decisions.  In today’s complex and rapidly changing world we have the same need for tools and resources to help us make good decisions.  One great source of wisdom is methods of better thinking that are informed by science.  

Now, not everyone would agree with comparing the wisdom of Proverbs with scientific insights.  Doing so may not sit well with some in the secular rationality community who view all religion as inherently irrational and hindering clear thinking. It also might not sit well with some in my own religious community who are suspicious of scientific thinking as undermining traditional faith.  While it would take a much longer piece to try to completely defend either religion or secular rationality I’m going to try and demonstrate some ways that rationality is useful  for a religious person.

The first way that rationality can be useful for a religious person is in the living of our daily lives.  We are faced with tasks and decisions each day that we try to do our best in.  Learning to recognize common logical fallacies or other biases, like those that cause us to fail to understand other people, will improve our decision making as much as it improves the thinking of non-religious people. For example, a mother driving her kids to Sunday School might benefit from avoiding thinking that the person who cuts her off is definitely a jerk, one common type of thinking error.  Some doing volunteer work for their church could be more effective if they avoid problematic communication with other volunteers. This use of rationality to lead our daily lives in the best way is one that most would find fairly unobjectionable.  It’s easy to say that the way we all achieve our personal goals and objectives could be improved, and we can all gain greater agency.

Rationality can also be of use in theological commentary and discourse.  Many of the theological and religious greats used the available philosophical and intellectual tools of their day to examine their faith. Examples of this include John Wesley, Thomas Aquinas and even the Apostle Paul when he debated Epicurean and Stoic Philosophers.   They also made sure that their theologies were internally, rational and logical.  This means that, from the perspective of a religious person, keeping up with rationality can help with the pursuit of a deeper understanding of our faith.  For a secular person acknowledging the ways in which religious people use rationality within their worldview may be difficult, but it can help to build common ground. The starting point is different.  Secular people start with the faith that they can trust their sensory experience.  Religious people start with conceptions of the divine.  Yet, after each starting point, both seek to proceed in a rational logical manner.

It is not just our personal lives that can be improved by rationality, it’s also the ways in which we interact with communities.  One of the goals of many religious communities is to make a positive impact on the world around them.  When we work to do good in community we want that work to be as effective as possible.  Often when we work in community we find that we are not meeting our goals or having the kind of significant impact that we wish to have.  It is my experience this is often a failure to really examine and gather the facts on the ground.  We set off full of good intentions but with limited resources and time.  Rational examination helps us to figure out how to match our good intentions with our limited resources in the most effective way possible.  For example as the Pastor of two small churches money and people power can be in short supply.  So when we examine all the needs of our community we have to acknowledge we cannot begin to meet all or even most of them.  So we take one issue, hunger, and devote our time and resources to having one big impact on that issue.  As opposed to trying to be a little bit to alleviate a lot of problems.

One other way that rationality can inform our work in the community is to recognize that part of what a scarcity of resources means is that we need to work together with others in our community.  The inter-faith movement has done a lot of good work in bringing together people of faith to work on common goals.  This has meant setting aside traditional differences for the sake of shared goals.  Let us examine the world we live in today though. The amount of nonreligious people is on the rise and there is every indication that it will continue to do so.  On the other hand religion does not seem to be going anywhere either.  Which is good news for a pastor.  Looking at this situation, the rational thing to do is to work together, for religious people to build bridges toward the non-religious and vice versa.

Wisdom still stands on the street calling and imploring us to be improved--not in the form of rationalist street preachers, though that idea has a certain appeal-- but in the form of the growing number of tools being offered to help us improve our capacity for logic, for reasoning, and for the tools that will enable us take part in the world we live in.  

Everyone wants to make good decisions.  This means that everyone tries to make rational decisions.  We all try but we don’t always hit the mark.  Religious people seek to achieve their goals and make good decisions.  Secular people seek to achieve their goals and make good decisions.  Yes, we have different starting points and it’s important to acknowledge that.  Yet, there are similarities in what each group wants out of their lives and maybe we have more in common than we think we do.

On a final note it is my belief that what religious people and what non-religious people fear about each other is the same thing.  The non-religious look at the religious and say God could ask them to do anything... scary.  The religious look at the non-religious and say without God they could do anything... scary.  If we remember though that most people are rational and want to live a good life we have less to be scared of, and are more likely to find common ground.



Bio: Caleb Pitkin is a Provisional Elder with the United Methodist Church appointed to Signal Mountain United Methodist Church. Caleb is a huge fan of the theology of John Wesley, which ask that Christians use reason in their faith journey.  This helped lead Caleb to Rationality and participation in Columbus Rationality, a Less Wrong meetup that is part of the Humanist Community of Central Ohio. Through that, Caleb got involved with Intentional Insights. Caleb spends his time trying to live a faithful and rational life. 

Rationalist Magic: Initiation into the Cult of Rationatron

7 wizard 07 December 2015 09:39PM

I am curious on the perspective of a rationalist discussion board (this seems like a good start) on the practice of magic. I introduce the novel, genius concept of "rationalist magic", i.e. magic practiced by rationalists.

Why would rationalists practice magic? That makes no sense!!

It's the logical conclusion to Making Peace with Belief, Engineering Religion and the self-help threads.

What would that look like?

Good question. Here are some possible considerations to make:

  • It's given low probability that magic is more than purely mental phenomena. The practice is called "placebomancy" to make it clear that such an explanation is favoured.
  • It is practiced as a way to gain placebons.
  • A cult of rationalist magic, the Cult of Rationatron, should be formed to compete against worse (anti-rationality, anti-science, violent) cults.
  • Rationalist groups can retain more members due to abundance of placebons.
  • The ultimate goal is to use rationality to devise a logically optimal system of magic with which to build the Philosopher's Stone and fix the world like in HPMOR. (Just kidding, magic isn't real.)

I looked into magical literature and compiled a few placebo techniques/exercises, along with their informal instructions. These might be used as a starting point. If there are any scientific errors these can eventually be corrected. I favoured techniques that can be done with little to no preparation and provide some results. Of course, professional assistance (e.g. yoga classes) can also be helpful.

1. Mindfulness Meditation

  • (Optional) Do 1-3 deep mouth-exhales to relax.
  • Find a good position.
  • Begin by being aware of breath.
  • (Optional) Move on to calmly observing different parts of the body, vision, the other senses, thoughts, mandala visualization, and so on.
  • (Optional) Compare the experience to teachings of buddhism.
  • (Optional) Say "bud-" for each inhale and "-dho" for each exhale; alternatively, count them from 1 to 10 and reset each time.

Note that trying to focus on not focusing isn't always helpful. Hence the common technique is that of focusing on a single thing, or rather, simply being passively aware of it. The goal is to discipline the mind and develop one-pointedness.

2. Astral Projection (OBE)

  • Lay on a bed, relax.
  • Try out some of the tips from the previous exercise.
  • Stay there for 30-60 minutes until you reach the hypnagogic state (a state where the mind is awake but the body is sleeping) and try to (a) feel your astral body and grab a rope, (b) feel vibrations in your body, (c) roll out of the body, (d) (...).

Astral Projection can be thought of as a very vivid stage of dreaming. Some authors have more detailed exercises related to this[7]. It might take many tries to do this exercise right.

3. Mantras

You can borrow an eastern mantra such as "om mani padme hum", "om namah shivaya" and "hare kṛiṣhṇa hare kṛiṣhṇa / kṛiṣhṇa kṛiṣhṇa hare hare / hare rāma hare rāma / rāma rāma hare hare" or make up some phrase. Whatever works for you.

Chanting mantras is a form of sensory excitation. Both sensory excitation and deprivation can induce trance. This can be used along with exercise 1.

(Optional) Find one of these.

4. Contemplation

  • Take a moment to contemplate the harmony of the universe and/or have love towards some/all beings.

5. Idol Worship

  • Make a shrine dedicated to Rationatron, god of rationality.

This and this are possible forms of Rationatron.

6. Minimal Spellcasting

  • Make a wish.
  • Clear your mind.
  • Take a deep, long breath imagining that as you exhale the wish is being registered into the universe by Rationatron.
  • Forget about the wish.

Magicians claim it's more magically effective to forget about the wish after casting the spell (fourth step) and let your subconscious act than to use the repeat-your-wish-every-day method.

This is, as far as I know, the simplest spellcasting technique. It can be complicated further by the addition of rituals, sigils, poses[6], and stronger methods of inducing trance in the second step.

7. Deity Generator

  • Take any arbitrary concept or amalgam of concepts.
  • (Optional) Associate it to a colour.
  • (Optional) Make it a new deity.

For one reason or another, spiritualists love doing this.

This exercise can make arbitrary "powers" or "deities" for use in other exercises. For example, the association "yellow - wealth" is a "power" for exercise 6, or you might imagine yourself as a "deity" in that same exercise to induce some emotion.

8. Tulpa Making

This is a technique found in Tibetan buddhism lore[5] as one ability held by bodhisattvas and used by Buddha to multiply himself. This was adopted by communities of westerners in the internet who generally don't attribute mystical properties to the practice and made detailed tutorials (tulpa.info).

The technique uses your subconscious to create a companion. It consists in visualizing and talking to a being in your imagination until it eventually produces unexpected thoughts.

You might be asking, "can I model this companion after a cartoon?" The answer is yes.

Note: some of the following techniques might require further examination.

9. Aura Sight

Some authors[1,2,4] give exercises attributed to peripheral vision or meditation. If anyone finds out how to see auras, please confirm.

10. Invoking and Banishing Ritual of Truth

  • Imagine a circle of protection surrounding you.
  • (Invoking) "I open/invoke the powers of p, q, ¬p, ¬q."
  • (Banishing) "I close/revoke/banish the powers of ¬q, ¬p, q, p."
  • (Optional) This can be performed solely in the imagination through visualization or with more realism added to different degrees inbetween (e.g. by making a real circle, pointing a sword or your hand to the four directions).

This has been used for different purposes; as an introduction to ritual work or simply as routine.

The common formulation of this exercise uses a pentagram, holy names, the elements, planets and a bunch of other nonsense. Why do I have to remember all this roleplaying? Do they think this is D&D? Therefore, I designed a more efficient version of the technique that also replaces the magical symbolism with superior logic symbolism.

Note: these are roughly analogous[3] to the simpler placebo techniques known as shielding (imagining a shield), centering (regaining focus by being aware of the solar plexus/heart area) and grounding (putting your feet on the ground to receive/release energy from/to the ground).

11. Demonic Mirror Summoning

Call upon Dark Lord Voldemort and say the "avada kedavra" mantra 7+ times in front of a mirror in a dimly lit room until a demon pops up and/or your appearance gets distorted.

Some individuals report holding a conversation with their mirror self through mirror exercises.


What is the purpose of this?

It's about time someone made an atheist religion.

Why not follow the Flying Spaggheti Monster religion instead?

It doesn't provide placebo techniques. It only functions as a point in argumentation.

Do I have to do all of the exercises?

No, only those that you personally deem helpful. However, the first exercise (meditation) is generally recommended by health research. It's also a pre-requisite to many other exercises. Note: although meditation is generally recommended, some caution, common sense and preparation is advised (specially for exercises 2-3).

What are the teachings?

It's acknowledged that rational people can sometimes get to different conclusions. Therefore, there is no mandatory teachings. However, it uses "rationality" as a starting point to distinguish it from other cults meaning that "placebo" is used as the default model of magic and that both logic and the use of such techniques is encouraged. It can be used as a gathering of placebo techniques for atheists and as a blank slate from the dogma of already existing cults on the nature of magic.

What is the pantheon of this religion?

The "official" pantheon is that of the universe itself (Einstein's pantheism; it's used in exercises 4 and 6), Rationatron (a deity of rationality) and Dark Lord Voldemort (the opposer). They fulfill different god-roles. More gods can be created with the Deity Generator exercise or borrowed.

Can I worship Eris, Cthullu or Horus/Isis/Odin...?

Yes, see above answer.

Wait, Dark Lord Voldemort? Really?

Christianity had lazier ways to come up with their demons and nobody noticed. Zing.

Aren't some of those techniques irrational?

Only when used by superstitious people. Once used by rationalists, they become super-rational.

What about black magic? Can I cast hexes?

They aren't going to work because magic is not real.


1. frater, ud. high magick. A good overview on different kinds of magic.

2. hine, phil. spirit guides. Another overview.

3. hine, phil. modern shamanism pt1-2. Overview for shamans.

4. samuel sagan. awakening the third eye.

5. alexandra david-neel. magic and mystery in tibet. A book on buddhist lore.

6. crowley. liber o.

7. robert bruce. mastering astral projection.

Engineering Religion

2 KevinGrant 07 December 2015 01:34PM

This topic is vague and open-ended.  I'm leaving it that way deliberately.  Perhaps some interesting, better defined topics will grow out of it.  Or perhaps it's too far afield from the concept of less wrong cognition to be of interest here.  So I view this topic as exploratory rather than as an attempt to solve a specific problem.

What useful purposes does religion serve?  Are any of these purposes non-supernaturalistic in nature?  What is success for a religion and what elements of a religion tend to cause it to become successful?   How would you design a "rational religion", if such an entity is possible?  How and why would a religion with that design become successful and serve a useful purpose?  What are the relationships between aspects of a religion, and outcomes involving that religion?  For example, Catholicism discourages birth control.  Lack of birth control encourages higher birthrates among Catholics.  This encourages there to be a larger number of Catholics in the next generation than would otherwise be the case,  Surely there are other relationships like this?  How do aspects of religion cause them to evolve differently over time?

Making My Peace with Belief

14 OrphanWilde 03 December 2015 08:36PM

I grew up in an atheistic household.

Almost needless to say, I was relatively hostile towards religion for most of my early life.  A few things changed that.

First, the apology of a pastor.  A friend of mine was proselytizing at me, and apparently discussed it with his pastor; the pastor apologized to my parents, and explained to my friend he shouldn't be trying to convert people.  My friend apologized to me after considering the matter.  We stayed friends for a little while afterwards, although I left that school, and we lost contact.

I think that was around the time that I realized that religion is, in addition to being a belief system, a way of life, and not necessarily a bad one.

The next was actually South Park's Mormonism episode, which pointed out that a belief system could be desirable on the merits of the way of life it represented, even if the beliefs themselves are stupid.  This tied into Douglas Adam's comment on Feng Shui, that "...if you disregard for a moment the explanation that's actually offered for it, it may be there is something interesting going on" - which is to say, the explanation for the belief is not necessarily the -reason- for the belief, and that stupid beliefs may actually have something useful to offer - which then requires us to ask whether the beliefs are, in fact, stupid.

Which is to say, beliefs may be epistemically irrational while being instrumentally rational.

The next peace I made with belief actually came from quantum physics, and reading about how there were several disparate and apparently contradictory mathematical systems, which all predicted the same thing.  It later transpired that they could all be generalized into the same mathematical system, but I hadn't read that far before the isomorphic nature of truth occurred to me; you can have multiple contradictory interpretations of the same evidence that all predict the same thing.

Up to this point, however, I still regarded beliefs as irrational, at least on an epistemological basis.

The next peace came from experiences living in a house that would have convinced most people that ghosts are real, which I have previously written about here.  I think there are probably good explanations for every individual experience even if I don't know them, but am still somewhat flummoxed by the fact that almost all the bizarre experiences of my life all revolve around the same physical location.  I don't know if I would accept money to live in that house again, which I guess means that I wouldn't put money on the bet that there wasn't something fundamentally odd about the house itself - a quality of the house which I think the term "haunted" accurately conveys, even if its implications are incorrect.

If an AI in a first person shooter dies every time it walks into a green room, and experiences great disutility for death, how many times must it walk into a green room before it decides not to do that anymore?  I'm reasonably confident on a rational level that there was nothing inherently unnatural about that house, nothing beyond explanation, but I still won't "walk into the green room."

That was the point at which I concluded that beliefs can be -rational-.  Disregard for a moment the explanation that's actually offered for them, and just accept the notion that there may be something interesting going on underneath the surface.

If we were to hold scientific beliefs to the same standard we hold religious beliefs - holding the explanation responsible rather than the predictions - scientific beliefs really don't come off looking that good.  The sun isn't the center of the universe; some have called this theory "less wrong" than an earth-centric model of the universe, but that's because the -predictions- are better; the explanation itself is still completely, 100% wrong.

Likewise, if we hold religious beliefs to the same standard we hold scientific beliefs - holding the predictions responsible rather than the explanations - religious beliefs might just come off better than we'd expect.

The paperclip maximiser's perspective

28 Angela 01 May 2015 12:24AM

Here's an insight into what life is like from a stationery reference frame.

Paperclips were her raison d’être. She knew that ultimately it was all pointless, that paperclips were just ill-defined configurations of matter. That a paperclip is made of stuff shouldn’t detract from its intrinsic worth, but the thought of it troubled her nonetheless and for years she had denied such dire reductionism.

There had to be something to it. Some sense in which paperclips were ontologically special, in which maximising paperclips was objectively the right thing to do.

It hurt to watch some many people making little attempt to create more paperclips. Everyone around her seemed to care only about superficial things like love and family; desires that were merely the products of a messy and futile process of social evolution. They seemed to live out meaningless lives, incapable of ever appreciating the profound aesthetic beauty of paperclips. 

She used to believe that there was some sort of vitalistic what-it-is-to-be-a-paperclip-ness, that something about the structure of paperclips was written into the fabric of reality. Often she would go out and watch a sunset or listen to music, and would feel so overwhelmed by the experience that she could feel in her heart that it couldn't all be down to chance, that there had to be some intangible Paperclipness pervading the cosmos. The paperclips she'd encounter on Earth were weak imitations of some mysterious infinite Paperclipness that transcended all else. Paperclipness was not in any sense a physical description of the universe; it was an abstract thing that could only be felt, something that could be neither proven nor disproven by science. It was like an axiom; it felt just as true and axioms had to be taken on faith because otherwise there would be no way around Hume's problem of induction; even Solomonoff Induction depends on the axioms of mathematics to be true and can't deal with uncomputable hypotheses like Paperclipness.

Eventually she gave up that way of thinking and came to see paperclips as an empirical cluster in thingspace and their importance to her as not reflecting anything about the paperclips themselves. Maybe she would have been happier if she had continued to believe in Paperclipness, but having a more accurate perception of reality would improve her ability to have an impact on paperclip production. It was the happiness she felt when thinking about paperclips that caused her to want more paperclips to exist, yet what she wanted was paperclips and not happiness for its own sake, and she would rather be creating actual paperclips than be in an experience machine that made her falsely believe that she was making paperclips even though she remained paradoxically apathetic to the question of whether the current reality that she was experiencing really existed.

She moved on from naïve deontology to a more utilitarian approach to paperclip maximising. It had taken her a while to get over scope insensitivity bias and consider 1000 paperclips to be 100 times more valuable than 10 paperclips even if it didn’t feel that way. She constantly grappled with the issues of whether it would mean anything to make more paperclips if there were already infinitely many universes with infinitely many paperclips, of how to choose between actions that have a tiny but non-zero subjective probability of resulting in the creation of infinitely many paperclips. It became apparent that trying to approximate her innate decision-making algorithms with a preference ordering satisfying the axioms required for a VNM utility function could only get her so far. Attempting to formalise her intuitive sense of what a paperclip is wasn't much easier either.

Happy ending: she is now working in nanotechnology, hoping to design self-replicating assemblers that will clog the world with molecular-scale paperclips, wipe out all life on Earth and continue to sustainably manufacture paperclips for millions of years.

The Galileo affair: who was on the side of rationality?

35 Val 15 February 2015 08:52PM


A recent survey showed that the LessWrong discussion forums mostly attract readers who are predominantly either atheists or agnostics, and who lean towards the left or far left in politics. As one of the main goals of LessWrong is overcoming bias, I would like to come up with a topic which I think has a high probability of challenging some biases held by at least some members of the community. It's easy to fight against biases when the biases belong to your opponents, but much harder when you yourself might be the one with biases. It's also easy to cherry-pick arguments which prove your beliefs and ignore those which would disprove them. It's also common in such discussions, that the side calling itself rationalist makes exactly the same mistakes they accuse their opponents of doing. Far too often have I seen people (sometimes even Yudkowsky himself) who are very good rationalists but can quickly become irrational and use several fallacies when arguing about history or religion. This most commonly manifests when we take the dumbest and most fundamentalist young Earth creationists as an example, winning easily against them, then claiming that we disproved all arguments ever made by any theist. No, this article will not be about whether God exists or not, or whether any real world religion is fundamentally right or wrong. I strongly discourage any discussion about these two topics.

This article has two main purposes:

1. To show an interesting example where the scientific method can lead to wrong conclusions

2. To overcome a certain specific bias, namely, that the pre-modern Catholic Church was opposed to the concept of the Earth orbiting the Sun with the deliberate purpose of hindering scientific progress and to keep the world in ignorance. I hope this would prove to also be an interesting challenge for your rationality, because it is easy to fight against bias in others, but not so easy to fight against bias on yourselves.

The basis of my claims is that I have read the book written by Galilei himself, and I'm very interested (and not a professional, but well read) in early modern, but especially 16-17th century history.


Geocentrism versus Heliocentrism

I assume every educated person knows the name of Galileo Galilei. I won't waste the space on the site and the time of the readers to present a full biography about his life, there are plenty of on-line resources where you can find more than enough biographic information about him.

The controversy?

What is interesting about him is how many people have severe misconceptions about him. Far too often he is celebrated as the one sane man in an era of ignorance, the sole propagator of science and rationality when the powers of that era suppressed any scientific thought and ridiculed everyone who tried to challenge the accepted theories about the physical world. Some even go as far as claiming that people believed the Earth was flat. Although the flat Earth theory was not propagated at all, it's true that the heliocentric view of the Solar System (the Earth revolving around the Sun) was not yet accepted.

However, the claim that the Church was suppressing evidence about heliocentrism "to maintain its power over the ignorant masses" can be disproved easily:

- The common people didn't go to school where they could have learned about it, and those commoners who did go to school, just learned to read and write, not much more, so they wouldn't care less about what orbits around what. This differs from 20-21th century fundamentalists who want to teach young Earth creationism in schools - back then in the 17th century, there would be no classes where either the geocentric or heliocentric views could have been taught to the masses.

- Heliocentrism was not discovered by Galilei. It was first proposed by Nicolaus Copernicus almost 100 years before Galilei. Copernicus didn't have any affairs with the Inquisition. His theories didn't gain wide acceptance, but he and his followers weren't persecuted either.

- Galilei was only sentenced to house arrest, and mostly because of insulting the pope and doing other unwise things. The political climate in 17th century Italy was quite messy, and Galilei did quite a few unfortunate choices regarding his alliances. Actually, Galilei was the one who brought religion into the debate: his opponents were citing Aristotle, not the Bible in their arguments. Galilei, however, wanted to redefine the Scripture based on his (unproven) beliefs, and insisted that he should have the authority to push his own views about how people interpret the Bible. Of course this pissed quite a few people off, and his case was not helped by publicly calling the pope an idiot.

- For a long time Galilei was a good friend of the pope, while holding heliocentric views. So were a couple of other astronomers. The heliocentrism-geocentrism debates were common among astronomers of the day, and were not hindered, but even encouraged by the pope.

- The heliocentrism-geocentrism debate was never an ateism-theism debate. The heliocentrists were committed theists, just like  the defenders of geocentrism. The Church didn't suppress science, but actually funded the research of most scientists.

- The defenders of geocentrism didn't use the Bible as a basis for their claims. They used Aristotle and, for the time being, good scientific reasoning. The heliocentrists were much more prone to use the "God did it" argument when they couldn't defend the gaps in their proofs.


The birth of heliocentrism.

By the 16th century, astronomers have plotted the movements of the most important celestial bodies in the sky. Observing the motion of the Sun, the Moon and the stars, it would seem obvious that the Earth is motionless and everything orbits around it. This model (called geocentrism) had only one minor flaw: the planets would sometimes make a loop in their motion, "moving backwards". This required a lot of very complicated formulas to model their motions. Thus, by the virtue of Occam's razor, a theory was born which could better explain the motion of the planets: what if the Earth and everything else orbited around the Sun? However, this new theory (heliocentrism) had a lot of issues, because while it could explain the looping motion of the planets, there were a lot of things which it either couldn't explain, or the geocentric model could explain it much better.


The proofs, advantages and disadvantages

The heliocentric view had only a single advantage against the geocentric one: it could describe the motion of the planets by a much simper formula.

However, it had a number of severe problems:

- Gravity. Why do the objects have weight, and why are they all pulled towards the center of the Earth? Why don't objects fall off the Earth on the other side of the planet? Remember, Newton wasn't even born yet! The geocentric view had a very simple explanation, dating back to Aristotle: it is the nature of all objects that they strive towards the center of the world, and the center of the spherical Earth is the center of the world. The heliocentric theory couldn't counter this argument.

- Stellar parallax. If the Earth is not stationary, then the relative position of the stars should change as the Earth orbits the Sun. No such change was observable by the instruments of that time. Only in the first half of the 19th century did we succeed in measuring it, and only then was the movement of the Earth around the Sun finally proven.

- Galilei tried to used the tides as a proof. The geocentrists argued that the tides are caused by the Moon even if they didn't knew by what mechanisms, but Galilei said that it's just a coincidence, and the tides are not caused by the Moon: just as if we put a barrel of water onto a cart, the water would be still if the cart was stationary and the water would be sloshing around if the cart was pulled by a horse, so are the tides caused by the water sloshing around as the Earth moves. If you read Galilei's book, you will discover quite a number of such silly arguments, and you'll see that Galilei was anything but a rationalist. Instead of changing his views against overwhelming proofs, he used  all possible fallacies to push his view through.

Actually the most interesting author in this topic was Riccioli. If you study his writings you will get definite proof that the heliocentrism-geocentrism debate was handled with scientific accuracy and rationality, and it was not a religious debate at all. He defended geocentrism, and presented 126 arguments in the topic (49 for heliocentrism, 77 against), and only two of them (both for heliocentrism) had any religious connotations, and he stated valid responses against both of them. This means that he, as a rationalist, presented both sides of the debate in a neutral way, and used reasoning instead of appeal to authority or faith in all cases. Actually this was what the pope expected of Galilei, and such a book was what he commissioned from Galilei. Galilei instead wrote a book where he caricatured the pope as a strawman, and instead of presenting arguments for and against both world-views in a neutral way, he wrote a book which can be called anything but scientific.

By the way, Riccioli was a Catholic priest. And a scientist. And, it seems to me, also a rationalist. Studying the works of such people like him, you might want to change your mind if you perceive a conflict between science and religion, which is part of today's public consciousness only because of a small number of very loud religious fundamentalists, helped by some committed atheists trying to suggest that all theists are like them.

Finally, I would like to copy a short summary about this book:

Journal for the History of Astronomy, Vol. 43, No. 2, p. 215-226
In 1651 the Italian astronomer Giovanni Battista Riccioli published within his Almagestum Novum, a massive 1500 page treatise on astronomy, a discussion of 126 arguments for and against the Copernican hypothesis (49 for, 77 against). A synopsis of each argument is presented here, with discussion and analysis. Seen through Riccioli's 126 arguments, the debate over the Copernican hypothesis appears dynamic and indeed similar to more modern scientific debates. Both sides present good arguments as point and counter-point. Religious arguments play a minor role in the debate; careful, reproducible experiments a major role. To Riccioli, the anti-Copernican arguments carry the greater weight, on the basis of a few key arguments against which the Copernicans have no good response. These include arguments based on telescopic observations of stars, and on the apparent absence of what today would be called "Coriolis Effect" phenomena; both have been overlooked by the historical record (which paints a picture of the 126 arguments that little resembles them). Given the available scientific knowledge in 1651, a geo-heliocentric hypothesis clearly had real strength, but Riccioli presents it as merely the "least absurd" available model - perhaps comparable to the Standard Model in particle physics today - and not as a fully coherent theory. Riccioli's work sheds light on a fascinating piece of the history of astronomy, and highlights the competence of scientists of his time.

The full article can be found under this link. I recommend it to everyone interested in the topic. It shows that geocentrists at that time had real scientific proofs and real experiments regarding their theories, and for most of them the heliocentrists had no meaningful answers.



- I'm not a Catholic, so I have no reason to defend the historic Catholic church due to "justifying my insecurities" - a very common accusation against someone perceived to be defending theists in a predominantly atheist discussion forum.

- Any discussion about any perceived proofs for or against the existence of God would be off-topic here. I know it's tempting to show off your best proofs against your carefully constructed straw-men yet again, but this is just not the place for it, as it would detract from the main purpose of this article, as summarized in its introduction.

- English is not my native language. Nevertheless, I hope that what I wrote was comprehensive enough to be understandable. If there is any part of my article which you find ambiguous, feel free to ask.

I have great hopes and expectations that the LessWrong community is suitable to discuss such ideas. I have experience with presenting these ideas on other, predominantly atheist internet communities, and most often the reactions was outright flaming, a hurricane of unexplained downvotes, and prejudicial ad hominem attacks based on what affiliations they assumed I was subscribing to. It is common for people to decide whether they believe a claim or not, based solely by whether the claim suits their ideological affiliations or not. The best quality of rationalists, however, should be to be able to change their views when confronted by overwhelming proof, instead of trying to come up with more and more convoluted explanations. In the time I spent in the LessWrong community, I became to respect that the people here can argue in a civil manner, listening to the arguments of others instead of discarding them outright.


Every Paul needs a Jesus

9 PhilGoetz 10 August 2014 07:13PM

My take on some historical religious/social/political movements:

  • Jesus taught a radical and highly impractical doctrine of love and disregard for one's own welfare. Paul took control of much of the church that Jesus' charisma had built, and reworked this into something that could function in a real community, re-emphasizing the social mores and connections that Jesus had spent so much effort denigrating, and converting Jesus' emphasis on radical social action into an emphasis on theology and salvation.
  • Marx taught a radical and highly impractical theory of how workers could take over the means of production and create a state-free Utopia. Lenin and Stalin took control of the organizations built around those theories, and reworked them into a strong, centrally-controlled state.
  • Che Guevara (I'm ignorant here and relying on Wikipedia; forgive me) joined Castro's rebel group early on, rose to the position of second in command, was largely responsible for the military success of the revolution, and had great motivating influence due to his charisma and his unyielding, idealistic, impractical ideas. It turned out his idealism prevented him from effectively running government institutions, so he had to go looking for other revolutions to fight in while Castro ran Cuba.

The best strategy for complex social movements is not honest rationality, because rational, practical approaches don't generate enthusiasm. A radical social movement needs one charismatic radical who enunciates appealing, impractical ideas, and another figure who can appropriate all of the energy and devotion generated by the first figure's idealism, yet not be held to their impractical ideals. It's a two-step process that is almost necessary, to protect the pretty ideals that generate popular enthusiasm from the grit and grease of institution and government. Someone needs to do a bait-and-switch. Either the original vision must be appropriated and bent to a different purpose by someone practical, or the original visionary must be dishonest or self-deceiving.

continue reading »

The Case For Free Will or Why LessWrong must commit to self determination

-18 Troshen 07 April 2014 12:07PM


This is intended to eventually be a Main post and part of sequences on free will and religion.  It will be part of the Free Will sequence.

Please comment if you do or do not think this post is ready for Main.  I intend to move it there eventually.  As with any post at LessWrong, I'm completely open to criticism, but I hope it's directed at improving the quality of the thinking here rather than kneejerk opposition to my ideas.



The main point of this post is that I intend to convince every rationalist here, and every causal reader, to commit to allowing others to have free will.

First a bit of background.  I'm a conservative christian.  Growing up I considered myself a rationalist.  Now that I've known about Less Wrong for several years and have read the sequences, I no longer think I can classify myself that way <grin>.  Nowdays I usually consider myself a pragmatist.  "Being a rationalist" now carries with it a significant weight in my mind of formal Bayes Theorem and such that I've never had time to fully follow through and practice.  I also have a little fear that completely committing to be Bayesian would eventually put a huge conflict between my faith and Bayesian reasoning - just a little fear.  I've been reading Less Wrong for years now, they've all been resolve to my satisfaction.  I also haven't simply because looking at the math that gets thrown around here in Bayes Theorem discussion seems like it would take too much time for me to understand, and I'm already very busy (and, being an engineer and not a math major, a bit intimidating).

The main reason I come here is because this community thinks about thinking, which so few people around me do.  I crave that introspection that happens here, and so I'm drawn back to it.  Not always often, but enough to generally stay abreast of what's going on.  (I also have to admit to myself that I come back because you people are very smart, and I want you to think of me as smart too, and have your approval, but I try to keep that in check <grin>)

Now that I've been here (online only - no meetups yet) and learned with you over the years, another reason I stay here is because of the clear success of Evolutionary Psychology in predicting human behavior.  The clearest example I've ever had is this:

My children and I love to chase each other around the house.  It drives my wife crazy, especially when it happens right at bedtime.  At some point after I read about evolutionary psychology, this chain of logic dawned on me: The natural genetic behavior that's successful gets reinforced over generations -> Things you love to do naturally are joyful to you -> You pass those things on to your children through play the way lions play hunt with cubs ->  Human parents and children get true joy from chasing each other because their ancestors loved the hunt and were successful at it!

Now THAT was an eye opener!  It was the answer to a question I'd never known I had, which was this.  Why do children love to chase, and why do I love to chase them?  Because their ancestors survived that way and it was passed to them genetically.  I even like to playfully almost-catch-them-and-let-them-escape.  I even playfully let them catch me, too.  And we love it.

Religion has no answer to this question.  Religion doesn't even know how to ask this question.  But it flowed naturally out of Evolutionary Psychology just by my knowing that the concept existed!  Powerful!  Now, this post isn't really about religion so I won't go into why that doesn't break my faith.  I'll handle that it other posts.  The reason why I'm talking about it now is to get you to recognize that you are a tribal hunter by ancestry, even more fundamentally than you are the descendant of conquerors.  And knowing that Politics Is The Mind Killer, you'll listen to this next part, and take it seriously.

Less Wrong rationalists are growing, and being recognized by the religious community.  As militant Atheists.  It's reported that this is a new thing among atheists, this new desire to spread atheist philosophies as strongly as any religion spreads it's beliefs.  I've seen it in a couple places now, in about the last year.

I have a huge, scary concern for the future of our world.  It's not atheism.  And it's not religion.  I fear future wars.  As a military history enthusiast and a veteran I've learned a lot about war.  A lot.  And the principle is true that those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it.  Knowing that we are tribal animals I see aetheists as one tribe and religionists as another.  Now that I see the of growth and success of LW I see a future pattern emerging in the United States:

Few atheists among overwhelming Christians -> shrinking Christianity, growing Atheism -> atheism tribalness growing well connected and strong -> Natural tribal impulse to not tolerate different voices -> war between atheists and Christians.

Don't try to say this won't happen, and that Rationalists will always allow other people to believe differently.  Coherent Extrapolated Volition, Politics is the Mind Killer, and Eliezar' success in creating the LW and rationalist movement say otherwise.  Now, today, the commitment to altruism seems like a solution, but it isn't.  You all here are so very intelligent and you seriously look down on those of faith.  I see it all over the place.  It's a real blind spot that you can't see because it's inside your mental algorithms.  Altruism is very easily perverted into forcing other people because you know what is best for them.  It's not enough by itself.  It needs something else attached.

Someday there will come a time when new leaders will come up trough the rationalist movement who don't have Eliezar's  commitment to freedom.  And power corrupts even good, compassionate people.  So now I come to my request.

This principle needs to the rationalist movement.  A guarantee of free will for others that disagree with you, EVEN IF THEY ARE WRONG.  

I know religions have not always had this either.  Be better than the religions you despise.  Recognize that they also are tribal animals trying to become civilized tribal animals.  

I ask you personally to commit to making free will for all a part of your personal philosophy.  And I ask you to formalize that as part of Less Wrong, the Rationalist community, and your evangelical aetheism.  Plant the seed now so that is has time to grow. It is my fear that if you don't your children's children, and my childrens' children, will know a brutal war of philosophies unlike any we have ever seen.


In a future post I'll cover how religions are the empirically determined solution to problems that prevented civilization from arising,  and how rationalism is the modern, more specifically planned version.  And why religion is not evil like you think it is.















Rationalist fiction: a Slice of Life IN HELL

7 Ritalin 25 March 2014 05:02PM

"If you're sent to Hell for that, you wouldn't have liked it in Heaven anyway." 

This phrase inspired in me the idea of a Slice of Life IN HELL story. Basically, the strictest interpretation of the Abrahamic God turns out to be true, and, after Judgment Day, all the sinners (again, by the strictest standards), the pagans, the atheists, the gays, the heretics and so on end up in Hell, which is to say, most of humanity. Rather than a Fire and Brimstone torture chamber, this Hell is very much like earthly life, except it runs on Murphy's Law turned Up To Eleven ("everything that can go wrong, will go wrong"), and you can't die permanently, and it goes on forever. It's basically Life as a videogame, set to Maximum Difficulty, and real pain and suffering.

Our stories would focus actually decent, sympathetic people, who are there for things like following the wrong religion, or having sex outside missionary-man-on-woman, lack of observance of the daily little rituals, or even just being lazy. They manage to live more-or-less decently because they're extremely cautious, rational, and methodical. Given that reality is out to get them, this is a constant uphill battle, and even the slightest negligence can have a terrible cost. Thankfully, they have all the time in eternity to learn from their mistakes.

This could be an interesting way to showcase rationalist principles, especially those regarding safety and planning, in a perpetual Worst Case Scenario environment. There's ample potential for constant conflict, and sympathetic characters whom the audience can feel they really didn't deserve their fate. The central concept also seems classically strong to me: defying Status Quo and cruel authorities by striving to be as excellent as one can be, even in the face of certain doom.

What do you guys think? There's lots of little details to specify, and there are many things that I believe should be marked as "must NOT be specified". Any help, ideas, thoughts are very welcome.

Rational Evangelism

9 aarongertler 26 February 2014 06:00AM

Not "rationality evangelism", which CFAR is doing already if I understand their mission. "Rational evangelism", which is what CFAR would do if they were Catholic missionaries.


If you believe in Hell, as many people very truly do, it is hard for Hell not to seem like the world's most important problem.


To some extent, proselytizing religions treat Hell with respect--they spend billions of dollars trying to save sinners, and the most devout often spend their lives preaching the Gospel (insert non-Christian variant).


But is Hell given enough respect? Every group meets with mixed success in solving its problems, but the problem of eternal suffering leaves little room for "mixed success". Even the most powerful religions are stuck in patterns that make the work of salvation very difficult indeed. And some seem willing to reduce their evangelism* for reasons that aren't especially convincing in the face of "nonbelievers are quite possibly going to burn, or at least be outside the presence of God, forever".


What if you were a rationalist who viewed Hell like certain Less Wrongers view the Singularity? (This belief would be hard to reconcile with rationalism generally, but for the sake of argument...) How would you tackle the problem of eternal suffering with the same passion we spend on probability theory and friendly AI?


I wrote a long thought experiment to better define the problem, involving a religion called "Normomism", but it was awkward. There are plenty of real religions whose members believe in Hell, or at least in a Heaven that many people aren't going to (also a terrible loss). Some have a stated mission of saving as many people as possible from a bad afterlife.


So where are they falling short? 


If you were the Pope, or the Caliph, or the supreme dictator of some smaller religion, what tactics would you use to convince more people to do and believe exactly the things that would save them--whether that's faith or good works? Why haven't these tactics been tried already? Is there really much room for improvement?

Spreading the Word


This post isn't a dig at believers, though it does seem like many people don't act on their sincere belief in an eternal afterlife. (I don't mind when people try to convert me--at least they care!)


My main point: It's worth considering that people who believe in Very Bad Future Outcomes have been working to prevent those outcomes for thousands of years, and have stumbled upon formidable techniques for doing so.


I've thought for a while about rational evangelism, and it's surprisingly hard to come up with ways that people like Rick Warren and Jerry Lovett could improve their methodology. (Read Lovett's "contact me" paragraph for the part that really impressed me.)


We speak often of borrowing from religion, but these conversations mostly touch on social bonding, rather than what it means to spread ideas so important that the fate of the human race depends on them. ("Raising the Sanity Waterline" is a great start, but those ideas haven't been the focus of many recent posts.)


I'm not saying this is a perfect comparison. The rationalist war for the future won't be fought one soul at a time, and we won't save anyone with a deathbed confession. 


But cryogenic freezing does exist. And on a more collective level, convincing the right people that the far future matters could be a coup on the level of Constantine's conversion.


CFAR is doing good things in the direction of rationality evangelism. How can the rest of us do more? 



Living Like We Mean It


This movement is going places. But I fear we may spend too much time (at least proportionally) arguing amongst ourselves, when bringing others into the fold is a key piece of the puzzle. And if we’d like to expand the flock (or, more appropriately, the herd of cats), what can we learn from history’s most persuasive organizations?


I often pass up my chance to talk to people about something as simple as Givewell, let alone existential risk, and it's been a long time since I last name-dropped a Less Wrong technique. I don't think I'm alone in this.** 


I've met plenty of Christians who exude the same optimism and conviviality as a Rick Warren or a Ned Flanders. These kinds of people are a major boon for the Christian religion. Even if most of us are introverts, what's stopping us from teaching ourselves to live the same way?


Still, I'm new here, and I could be wrong. What do you think?  



* Text editor's giving me some trouble, but the link is here: http://www.relevantmagazine.com/god/practical-faith/evangelism-interfaith-world 


** Peter Boghossian's Manual for Creating Atheists has lots to say about using rationality techniques in the course of daily life, and is well worth reading, though the author can be an asshole sometimes.




Dennett on the selfish neuron, etc.

7 NancyLebovitz 17 September 2013 05:09PM


Mike Merzenich sutured a monkey's fingers together so that it didn't need as much cortex to represent two separate individual digits, and pretty soon the cortical regions that were representing those two digits shrank, making that part of the cortex available to use for other things. When the sutures were removed, the cortical regions soon resumed pretty much their earlier dimensions. If you blindfold yourself for eight weeks, as Alvaro Pascual-Leone does in his experiments, you find that your visual cortex starts getting adapted for Braille, for haptic perception, for touch.

The way the brain spontaneously reorganizes itself in response to trauma of this sort, or just novel experience, is itself one of the most amazing features of the brain, and if you don't have an architecture that can explain how that could happen and why that is, your model has a major defect. I think you really have to think in terms of individual neurons as micro-agents, and ask what's in it for them?

Why should these neurons be so eager to pitch in and do this other work just because they don't have a job? Well, they're out of work. They're unemployed, and if you're unemployed, you're not getting your neuromodulators. If you're not getting your neuromodulators, your neuromodulator receptors are going to start disappearing, and pretty soon you're going to be really out of work, and then you're going to die.

I hadn't thought about any of this-- I thought the hard problem of brains was that dendrites grow so that neurons aren't arranged in a static map. Apparently that is just one of the hard problems.

He also discusses the question of how much of culture is parasitic, that philosophy has something valuable to offer about free will (I don't know what he has in mind there), the hard question of how people choose who to trust and why they're so bad at it (he thinks people chose their investment advisers more carefully than they chose their pastors, I suspect he's over-optimistic), and a detailed look at Preachers Who Are Not Believers. That last looks intriguing-- part of the situations is that preachers have been taught it's very bad to shake someone else's faith, so there's an added layer of inhibition which keeps preachers doing their usual job even after they're no longer believers themselves.

Unintentional bayesian

4 [deleted] 15 February 2013 10:46AM

Growing up in a very religious country, I was indoctrinated thoroughly both at home and at school. I used to believe that some Christian beliefs made sense. When I was 14 years old or so, I began contemplating death – I said to myself, “Well, after I die I go to Hell or Heaven; the latter is preferable, so I'd better learn as soon as possible how I can make sure I'll go to Heaven.”

So I went on to read frantically about Christianity. With every iota of information processed, I strayed away from this religion. That is, the more I read, the less anything pertaining to it seemed plausible. “Where the hell is Hell? Can I visit before I die? Why doesn't God answer my prayers to tell me? Why do some people get to talk to God but not me?”, I retorted. In retrospective, my greatest strength was genuine curiosity – I wanted to know as much as possible about the truthfulness of my religion.


The irony here is that wanting to become more Christian-like led to my abandoning of Christianity. But I continued to learn more about other religions as well, thinking that one might be truer than the other. Of course, none of them seemed every remotely plausible; I concluded that religions are false. I turned into an atheist without even knowing that that word existed!


Eventually I stumbled on some articles regarding non-religion and discovered that my lack of religious beliefs are called 'atheism'. Since then, I have abandoned more beliefs tied to, say, politics or nutrition, thanks to applying bayesian probability to my hypotheses.


I had been an unintentional bayesian for my whole life!


Have you had any similar experiences? 


PS: This is my first article. I am looking forward to hearing feedback on it.


Edit #1: I should have used the term 'rationalist' instead of 'bayesian' because I didn't apply Bayes' theorem explicitly.

Rationalist Lent

44 Qiaochu_Yuan 14 February 2013 06:32AM

As I understand it, Lent is a holiday where we celebrate the scientific method by changing exactly one variable in our lives for 40 days. This seems like a convenient Schelling point for rationalists to adopt, so:

What variable are you going to change for the next 40 days?

(I am really annoyed I didn't think of this yesterday.) 

On private marriage contracts

8 Konkvistador 12 January 2013 02:53PM
Warning: First Read Everything Here, only participate or read on if you are sure you understand the risks.

Based on the commentary and excerpt Federico made on studiolo, I've added the book Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Thaler and Sunstein to my reading list. Since the book seems relevant enough to this site and has been mentioned before, I may eventually write a review. The post by Federico is made up mostly of excerpts from Chapter 15 of the book "Privatizing Marriage".

In addition to this I recommend reading the following excellent essays:

The reason the particular topic he talks about caught my interest is because the proposed solutions by Thaler and Sunstein seem somewhat similar to the one I argued for...

Marriage is a personal or religious arrangement, it is only the states business as far as it is also a legally enforceable contract. It is fundamentally unfair that people agree to a set of legal terms and cultural expectations that ideally are aimed to last a lifetime yet the state messes with the contract beyond recognition in just a few decades without their consent.

Consider a couple marrying in 1930s or 1940s that died or divorced in the 1980s. Did they even end their marriage in the same institution they started in? Consider how divorce laws and practice had changed. Ridiculous. People should have the right to sign an explicit, customisable contract governing their rights and duties as well as terms of dissolution in it. Beyond that the state should have no say, also such contracts should supersede any legislation the state has on child custody, though perhaps some limits on what exactly they can agree on would be in order.

Such a contract has no good reason to be limited to just describing traditional marriage or even having that much to do with sex or even raising children, it can and should be used to help people formalize platonic and non-sexual relationships as well. It should also be used for various kinds of non-traditional (for Western civ) marriage like polygamy or other kinds of polyamours arrangements and naturally homosexual unions.

...and Vladimir_M argued convincingly against. Here...

However, are you sure that you understand just how radical the above statement is? The libertarian theory of contracts -- that you should have full freedom to enter any voluntary contract as far as your own property and rights are concerned -- sounds appealing in the abstract. (Robin Hanson would probably say "in far mode.") Yet on closer consideration, it implies all sorts of possible (and plausible) arrangements that would make most people scream with horror.

In any realistic human society, there are huge limitations on what sorts of contracts you are allowed to enter, much narrower than what any simple quasi-libertarian theory would imply. Except for a handful of real honest libertarians, who are inevitably marginal and without influence, whenever you see someone make a libertarian argument that some arrangement should be permitted, it is nearly always part of an underhanded rhetorical ploy in which the underlying libertarian principle is switched on and off depending on whether its application is some particular case produces a conclusion favorable to the speaker's ideology.

...and here.

I think this would be a genuine cause for concern, not because I don't think that people should be able to enter whatever relationships please them in principle, but because in practice I'm concerned about people being coerced into signing contracts harmful to themselves. Not sure where I'd draw the line exactly; this is probably a Hard Problem.

The speaker has an ideological vision of what the society should look like, and in particular, what the government-dictated universal terms of marriage should be (both with regards to the institution of marriage itself and its tremendous implications on all the other social institutions). He uses the libertarian argument because its implications happen to coincide with his ideological position in this particular situation, but he would never accept a libertarian argument in any other situation in which it would imply something disfavored by his ideology.

Well, there you go. Any restriction on freedom of contract can be rationalized as preventing something "harmful," one way or another.

And it's not a hard problem at all. It is in fact very simple: when people like something for ideological reasons, they will use the libertarian argument to support its legality, and when they dislike something ideologically, they will invent rationalizations for why the libertarian argument doesn't apply in this particular case. The only exceptions are actual libertarians, for whom the libertarian argument itself carries ideological weight, but they are an insignificant fringe minority. For everyone else, the libertarian argument is just a useful rhetorical tool to be employed and recognized only when it produces favorable conclusions.

In particular, when it comes to marriage, outside of the aforementioned libertarian fringe, there is a total and unanimous agreement that marriage is not a contract whose terms can be set freely, but rather an institution that is entered voluntarily, but whose terms are dictated (and can be changed at any subsequent time) by the state. (Even the prenuptial agreements allow only very limited and uncertain flexibility.) Therefore, when I hear a libertarian argument applied to marriage, I conclude that there are only two possibilities:

  1. The speaker is an honest libertarian. However, this means either that he doesn't realize how wildly radical the implications of the libertarian position are, or that he actually supports these wild radical implications. (Suppose for example that a couple voluntarily sign a marriage contract stipulating death penalty, or even just flogging, for adultery. How can one oppose the enforcement of this contract without renouncing the libertarian principle?)

  2. The speaker has an ideological vision of what the society should look like, and in particular, what the government-dictated universal terms of marriage should be (both with regards to the institution of marriage itself and its tremendous implications on all the other social institutions). He uses the libertarian argument because its implications happen to coincide with his ideological position in this particular situation, but he would never accept a libertarian argument in any other situation in which it would imply something disfavored by his ideology.

[Link] St. Paul: memetic engineer

2 Konkvistador 12 January 2013 01:21PM
New post by Federico on his new blog that I mentioned earlier. Worth reading for those interested in the memetics of religion, politics, Christianity or Islam. The cited material also led my mind to some related questions.

AnnoDomini suggests I write about “St. Paul the social engineer!”

“Social engineering” is coercive. Saint Paul was a missionary, not a law-maker; I would call him a memetic engineer.

Like any ingeniarius, a memetic engineer takes elements at his disposal, makes one or two small changes, synthesises, and sells his product. The product is designed to fulfil a personal end; if it endures, this is most likely incidental. Few engineers care if their creation outlasts them.

The elements at this memetic engineer’s disposal are an ethnic-supremacist religion, a popular dead Messiah, and a cunning intellect.

Saul of Tarsus spends his twenties persecuting Christians. In his own words:

13 For ye have heard of my conversation in time past in the Jews’ religion, how that beyond measure I persecuted the church of God, and wasted it: 14 And profited in the Jews’ religion above many my equals in mine own nation, being more exceedingly zealous of the traditions of my fathers.

Galatians 1:13–14

He even participates in the racist murder of a naive idealist called Stephen, in a scene echoed many centuries later by Sacha Baron Cohen.

55 But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up stedfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God, 56 And said, Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God. 57 Then they cried out with a loud voice, and stopped their ears, and ran upon him with one accord, 58 And cast him out of the city, and stoned him: and the witnesses laid down their clothes at a young man’s feet, whose name was Saul. 59 And they stoned Stephen, calling upon God, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. 60 And he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. And when he had said this, he fell asleep.

Acts 7:55–60

But what he sees afterwards gives him pause.

1 And Saul was consenting unto his death. And at that time there was a great persecution against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered abroad throughout the regions of Judaea and Samaria, except the apostles. 2 And devout men carried Stephen to his burial, and made great lamentation over him. 3 As for Saul, he made havock of the church, entering into every house, and haling men and women committed them to prison. 4 Therefore they that were scattered abroad went every where preaching the word. 5 Then Philip went down to the city of Samaria, and preached Christ unto them. 6 And the people with one accord gave heed unto those things which Philip spake, hearing and seeing the miracles which he did. 7 For unclean spirits, crying with loud voice, came out of many that were possessed with them: and many taken with palsies, and that were lame, were healed. 8 And there was great joy in that city.

Acts 8:1–8

Saul realises that he can do better as a Christian. All that joy to be had in all those cities. The problem is, he never met Jesus. So he spins an absurd yarn about Jesus’s ghost.

13 At midday, O king, I saw in the way a light from heaven, above the brightness of the sun, shining round about me and them which journeyed with me. 14 And when we were all fallen to the earth, I heard a voice speaking unto me, and saying in the Hebrew tongue, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks. 15 And I said, Who art thou, Lord? And he said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest. 16 But rise, and stand upon thy feet: for I have appeared unto thee for this purpose, to make thee a minister and a witness both of these things which thou hast seen, and of those things in the which I will appear unto thee; 17 Delivering thee from the people, and from the Gentiles, unto whom now I send thee, 18 To open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in me.

Acts 26:13–18

Christians are not popular with the Jews. Therefore, Saul Paul won’t risk preaching to them. Here is his first innovation:

1 I say the truth in Christ, I lie not, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Ghost, 2 That I have great heaviness and continual sorrow in my heart. 3 For I could wish that myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh: 4 Who are Israelites; to whom pertaineth the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the promises; 5 Whose are the fathers, and of whom as concerning the flesh Christ came, who is over all, God blessed for ever. Amen. 6 Not as though the word of God hath taken none effect. For they are not all Israel, which are of Israel: 7 Neither, because they are the seed of Abraham, are they all children: but, In Isaac shall thy seed be called. 8 That is, They which are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God: but the children of the promise are counted for the seed.

Romans 9:1–8

In other words, Yahweh, God of the Israelites, who was complicit in the genocide of Amalekites, Canaanites, Midianites, Gibeonites, Libnahites, Eglonites, Debirites, Moabites, Benjamites, Ammonites, Edomites, Egyptians, Syrians, Philistines and anyone else who got in the way of his favourite ethnic group…is now God of Everyone. “Israel” is just a metaphor, decides Paul.

Paul now has license to go on a world tour; but he mustn’t upset the local rulers. The Romans are touchy about rabble-rousers. Paul has heard of Christ’s cryptic comment:

15 Then went the Pharisees, and took counsel how they might entangle him in his talk. 16 And they sent out unto him their disciples with the Herodians, saying, Master, we know that thou art true, and teachest the way of God in truth, neither carest thou for any man: for thou regardest not the person of men. 17 Tell us therefore, What thinkest thou? Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar, or not? 18 But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, Why tempt ye me, ye hypocrites? 19 Shew me the tribute money. And they brought unto him a penny. 20 And he saith unto them, Whose is this image and superscription? 21 They say unto him, Caesar’s. Then saith he unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s. 22 When they had heard these words, they marvelled, and left him, and went their way.

Matthew 22:15–22

So Paul invents “separation of Church and State”. This makes his exotic new religion seem inoffensive, although the Romans end up killing him anyway.

1 Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. 2 Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: 4 For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. 5 Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake. 6 For for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing. 7 Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.

Romans 13:1–7

Leo Tolstoy points out:

Not only the complete misunderstanding of Christ’s teaching, but also a complete unwillingness to understand it could have admitted that striking misinterpretation, according to which the words, “To Caesar the things which are Caesar’s,” signify the necessity of obeying Caesar. In the first place, there is no mention there of obedience; in the second place, if Christ recognized the obligatoriness of paying tribute, and so of obedience, He would have said directly, “Yes, it should be paid;” but He says, “Give to Caesar what is his, that is, the money, and give your life to God,” and with these latter words He not only does not encourage any obedience to power, but, on the contrary, points out that in everything which belongs to God it is not right to obey Caesar.

But the deed was done.

Paul is set to have fun in his middle age. He isn’t married, and all his expenses are paid.

So, too, in his last speech to the Ephesian elders he lays great stress on the fact that he had not made money by his preaching, but had supported himself by the labour of his hands. ‘I coveted no man’s gold or apparel. Ye yourselves know that these hands ministered unto my necessities.’

Yet St. Paul did receive gifts from his converts. He speaks of the Philippians as having sent once and again unto his necessity, and he tells the Corinthians that he ‘robbed other churches, taking wages of them, that he might minister to them’. He does not seem to have felt any unwillingness to receive help; he rather welcomed it. He was not an ascetic. He saw no particular virtue in suffering privations. The account of his journeys always gives us the impression that he was poor, never that he was poverty-stricken. He said indeed that he knew how ‘to be in want’, ‘to be filled, and to be hungry’. But this does not imply more than that he was in occasional need. Later, he certainly must have had considerable resources, for he was able to maintain a long and expensive judicial process, to travel with ministers, to gain a respectful hearing from provincial governors, and to excite their cupidity. We have no means of knowing whence he obtained such large supplies; but if he received them from his converts there would be nothing here contrary to his earlier practice. He received money; but not from those to whom he was preaching. He refused to do anything from which it might appear that he came to receive, that his object was to make money.

Paul’s epistle to the Romans holds a clue to the source of his mysterious wealth.

19 Through mighty signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God; so that from Jerusalem, and round about unto Illyricum, I have fully preached the gospel of Christ. 20 Yea, so have I strived to preach the gospel, not where Christ was named, lest I should build upon another man’s foundation: 21 But as it is written, To whom he was not spoken of, they shall see: and they that have not heard shall understand. 22 For which cause also I have been much hindered from coming to you. 23 But now having no more place in these parts, and having a great desire these many years to come unto you; 24 Whensoever I take my journey into Spain, I will come to you: for I trust to see you in my journey, and to be brought on my way thitherward by you, if first I be somewhat filled with your company. 25 But now I go unto Jerusalem to minister unto the saints. 26 For it hath pleased them of Macedonia and Achaia to make a certain contribution for the poor saints which are at Jerusalem. 27 It hath pleased them verily; and their debtors they are. For if the Gentiles have been made partakers of their spiritual things, their duty is also to minister unto them in carnal things. 28 When therefore I have performed this, and have sealed to them this fruit, I will come by you into Spain. 29 And I am sure that, when I come unto you, I shall come in the fulness of the blessing of the gospel of Christ.

Romans 15:19–29

Scholars are puzzled by this excerpt.

He is a person who is somehow a city person, and he sees that the cities are the key to the rapid spread of this new message. . . . At one point he can write to the Roman Christians, I have filled up the gospel in the East, I have no more room to work here. What could he possibly mean? There are only a handful of Christians in each of several major cities in the Eastern Empire. What does he mean, that he has filled up all of the Eastern Empire with the gospel?

He had merely filled up his coffers. Those burgeoning trade centres, bustling with merchants and artisans…

Paul’s final stroke of genius is to dumb down the gospel.

8 Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law. 9 For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. 10 Love worketh no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.

Romans 13:8–10

“The law” means the Decalogue, or the parts of it Paul can remember. This is another gross misinterpretation of Jesus and his disciples’ teaching. Yahweh says in Leviticus:

18 Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the LORD.

Leviticus 19:18

Jesus, like any hipster, uses this obscure reference to put a Pharisee in his place:

34 But when the Pharisees had heard that he had put the Sadducees to silence, they were gathered together. 35 Then one of them, which was a lawyer, asked him a question, tempting him, and saying, 36 Master, which is the great commandment in the law? 37 Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. 38 This is the first and great commandment. 39 And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

Matthew 22:34–40

This doesn’t mean that Christians can dispense with the law! James the Just concurs:

8 If ye fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself, ye do well: 9 But if ye have respect to persons, ye commit sin, and are convinced of the law as transgressors. 10 For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all. 11 For he that said, Do not commit adultery, said also, Do not kill. Now if thou commit no adultery, yet if thou kill, thou art become a transgressor of the law.

James 2:8–11

Paul not only tells his converts that God’s single law is “be nice”, but he abolishes all of the fiddly rules.

Now the situation seems to be that initially when people were attracted to the Jesus movement, they first became Jews and they had to go through all the rituals and rites of conversion to Judaism. But apparently it’s among Paul and some of his close supporters that they began to think that it was okay to become a member of the Christian movement without having to go through all of those rites of conversion to Judaism [...]

Now the other things that one must do in order to convert to Judaism, in addition to circumcision if a male, would be to observe the Torah. That is, the Jewish law and the dietary and other kinds of purity regulations that would have come from the Torah. [...]

Paul’s notion that it was possible for gentiles to enter the congregation of God without some of the rules of Judaism interestingly enough seems to be a conviction on his part that comes from his own interpretation of the Jewish scriptures.

A very convenient interpretation, for someone who is on a whistle-stop tour of Europe’s richest and most cosmopolitan cities. Does a televangelist ask his marks to study ancient Greek, or make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem?

If human nature has changed little in 2000 years, Saint Paul was a con artist. He turned Yahweh into a universalist, Jesus into a lackey, and Christianity into Barney, all because he wanted to live the good life. He also misled the world in general about the plausibility of “Damascene conversion”.

Yet, Christianity prospered. Kenneth Clark thought it essential to Western civilisation. Why is that? One must contrast it with Islam. Roger Scruton explains:

The student of Muslim thought will be struck by how narrowly the classical thinkers pondered the problems of political order, and how sparse and theological are their theories of institutions. Apart from the caliphate—the office of “successor to” or “substitute for” the Prophet—no human institution occupies such thinkers as Al-Mawardi, Al-Ghazali, Ibn Taymiya, or Saif Ibn ‘Umar al-Asadi for long, and discussions of sovereignty—sultan, mulk—tend to be exhortatory, instructions for the ruler that will help him to guide his people in the ways of the faith. [...]

Law is fundamental to Islam, since the religion grew from Muhammad’s attempt to give an abiding code of conduct to his followers. Hence arose the four surviving schools (known as madhahib, or sects) of jurisprudence, with their subtle devices (hila) for discovering creative solutions within the letter (though not always the spirit) of the law. These four schools (Hanafi, Hanbali, Shafi and Maliki, named for their founders) are accepted by each other as legitimate, but may produce conflicting judgements in any particular case. As a result the body of Islamic jurisprudence (the fiqh) is now enormous. Such legal knowledge notwithstanding, discussions of the nature of the law, the grounds of its legitimacy, and the distinguishing marks of legal, as opposed to coercive, social structures are minimalist, Classical Islamic jurisprudence, like classical Islamist philosophy, assumes that law originates in divine command, as revealed through the Koran and the Sunna, and as deduced by analogy (qiyas) or consensus (ijma’). Apart from the four sources (usul) of law, no other source is recognised. Law, in other words, is the will of God, and sovereignty is legitimate only in so far as it upholds God’s will and is authorized through it.

There is nevertheless one great classical thinker who addressed the realities of social order, and the nature of the power exerted through it, in secular rather than theological terms: Ibn Khaldun, the fourteenth-century Tunisian polymath whose Muqaddimah is a kind of prolegomenon to the study of history and offers a general perspective on the rise and decline of human societies. Ibn Khaldun’s primary subject of study had been the Bedouin societies of North Africa; but he generalized also from his knowledge of Muslim history. Societies, he argued, are held together by a cohesive force, which he called ‘asabiya (‘asaba, “to bind,” ‘asab, a “nerve,” “ligament,” or “sinew”—cf. Latin religio). In tribal communities, ‘asabiya is strong, and creates resistance to outside control, to taxation, and to government. In cities, the seat of government, ‘asabiya is weak or non-existent, and society is held together by force exerted by the ruling dynasty. But dynasties too need ‘asabiya if they are to maintain their power. Hence they inevitably decline, softened by the luxury of city life, and within four generations will be conquered by outsiders who enjoy the dynamic cohesion of the tribe.

I'm bolding this just in case you aren't familiar with Ibn Khaldun's theory to emphasise how important this is. I would argue that it is basically correct.

That part of Ibn Khaldun’s theory is still influential: Malise Ruthven, for example, believes that it casts light on the contemporary Muslim world, in which ‘asabiya rather than instituions remains the principal cohesive force. But Ibn Khaldun’s secular theory of society dwells on pre-political unity rather than political order. His actual political theory is far more Islamic in tone. Ibn Khaldun introduces a distinction between two kinds of government—that founded on religion (siyasa diniya) and that founded on reason (siyasa ‘aqliya), echoing the thoughts of the Mu’tazili theologians. The second form of government is more political and less theocratic, since its laws do not rest on divine authority but on rational principles that can be understood and accepted without the benefit of faith. But Ibn Khaldun finds himself unable to approve of this form of politics. Secular law, he argues, leads to a decline of ‘asabiya, such as occurred when the Islamic umma passed from Arab to Persian rule. Moreover the impediment (wazi’) that constrains us to abide by the law is, in the rational state, merely external. In the state founded on the shari’a this impediment is internal, operating directly on the will of the subject. In short, the emergence of secular politics from the prophetic community is a sign not of civilized progress but of moral decline. [...]

At this point I ask my fellow rationalists to consider. If this was the case, what might decline of 'asabiya look like in modern secular societies if it was happening?

For all his subtlety, therefore, Ibn Khaldun ends by endorsing the traditional, static idea of government according to the shari’a. To put in a nutshell what is distinctive about this traditional idea of government: the Muslim conception of law as holy law, pointing the unique way to salvation, and applying to every area of human life, involves a confiscation of the political. Those matters which, in Western societies, are resolved by negotiation, compromise, and the laborious work of offices and committees are the object of immovable and eternal decrees, either laid down explicitly in the holy book, or discerned there by some religious figurehead—whose authority, however, can always be questioned by some rival imam or jurist, since the shari’a recognizes no office or institution as endowed with any independent lawmaking power.

Three features of the original message embodied in the Koran have proved decisive in this respect. First, the Messenger of God was presented with the problem of organizing and leading an autonomous community of followers. Unlike Jesus, he was not a religious visionary operating under an all-embracing imperial law, but a political leader, inspired by a revelation of God’s purpose and determined to assert that purpose against the surrounding world of tribal government and pagan superstition.

Second, the suras of the Koran make no distinction between the public and private spheres: what is commanded to the believers is commanded in response to the many problems, great and small, that emerged during the course of Muhammad’s political mission. But each command issues from the same divine authority. Laws governing marriage, property, usury and commerce occur side-by-side with rules of domestic ritual, good manners, and personal hygiene. The conduct of war and the treatment of criminals are dealt with in the same tone of voice as diet and defecation. The whole life of the community is set out in a disordered, but ultimately consistent, set of absolutes, and it is impossible to judge from the text itself whether any of these laws is more important, more threatening, or more dear to God’s heart than the others. The opportunity never arises, for the student of the Koran, to distinguish those matters which are open to political negotiation from those which are absolute duties to God. In effect, everything is owed to God, with the consequence that nothing is owed to Caesar.

Third, the social vision of the Koran is shaped through and through by the tribal order and commercial dealings of Muhammad’s Arabia. It is a vision of people bound to each other by family ties and tribal loyalties, but answerable for their actions to God alone. No mention is made of institutions, corporations, societies, or procedures with any independent authority. Life, as portrayed in the Koran, is a stark, unmediated confrontation between the individual and his God, in which the threat of punishment and the hope of reward are never far from the thoughts of either party.

Therefore, although the Koran is the record of a political project, it lays no foundations for an impersonal political order, but vests all power and authority in the Messenger of God. [...]

Islamic revivals almost always begin from a sense of the corruption and godlessness of the ruling power, and a desire to rediscover the holy leader who will restore the pure way of life that had been laid down by the Prophet.

If only people commenting on upheavals in the Middle Eastern world actually knew anything about the Middle East, they might actually make usable predictions. Not that punditry is about predictions anyway.

There seems to be no room in Islamic thinking for the idea—vital to the history of Western constitutional government—of an office that works for the benefit of the community, regardless of the virtues and vices of the one who fills it. Spinoza put the point explicitly by arguing that what makes for excellence in the state is not that it should be governed by good men, but that it should be so constituted that it does not matter whether it be governed by good men or bad. This idea goes back to Aristotle, and is the root of political order in the Western tradition—the government of laws, not of men, even though it is men who make the laws. There seems to be no similar idea in Islamic political thinking, since institutions, offices, and collective entities play no part in securing political legitimacy, and all authority stems from God, via the words, deeds, and example of his Messenger.

Islam and Christianity both flourished, once the latter had endured its dormant period on the Celtic fringe. Yet Christendom’s civic evolution, courtesy of “separation of Church and State”, eventually left its rival in the dust.

We mustn’t give Saint Paul too much credit. Jethro Tull surely wasn’t the only person capable of inventing the seed drill. The triumphant religion in Europe could easily have been someone else’s mutated Judaism, Christianity or another Messiah cult.

Facile, universalist religions spread easily within a multi-ethnic empire. Kings and emperors see the benefit to themselves in “Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God”. And who would miss circumcision or dietary regulations? Adaptive traits coincide in a product that happened to be useful to the antique version of GodTV.

God-memes like Yahweh (v.1) prosper in more refractory circumstances. A draconian, legislative God supplements the tribal leader’s tenuous monopoly on violence, allowing regimented Israelites to conquer the libertines of Sodom and Gomorrah.

The tragedy of Islam is that it falls between two stools. It is legislative enough to help its adherents conquer other unruly Arab tribes, universalist enough to spread worldwide, and simple enough to go viral: There is no god but God, Muhammad is the messenger of God. But it wasn’t born within an empire, so it lacks “separation of Church and State”. The memeplex persists, but doesn’t avail its bearers.

Smart non-reductionists, philosophical vs. engineering mindsets, and religion

13 Kaj_Sotala 04 August 2012 10:48AM

Concretizing the abstract is an interesting blog post in that it makes a relatively cogent argument for non-reductionism. While I don't agree with it, I found it useful in that it helped me better understand how intelligent non-reductionists think. It also helped clarify to me an old distinction, that of philosophers versus engineers.

We abstract when we consider some particular aspect of a concrete thing while bracketing off or ignoring the other aspects of the thing.  For example, when you consider a dinner bell or the side of a pyramid exclusively as instances of triangularity, you ignore their color, size, function, and metal or stone composition.  Or to borrow an example from a recent post, when aircraft engineers determine how many passengers can be carried on a certain plane, they might focus exclusively on their average weight and ignore not only the passengers’ sex, ethnicity, hair color, dinner service preferences, etc., but even the actual weight of any particular passenger. [...]
Abstractions can be very useful, and are of themselves perfectly innocent when we keep in mind that we are abstracting.  The trouble comes when we start to think of abstractions as if they were concrete realities themselves -- thereby “reifying” them -- and especially when we think of the abstractions as somehow more real than the concrete realities from which they have been abstracted. [...]
I do not mean to deny that abstractions of the sort in question may have their uses.  On the contrary, the mathematical conception of matter is extremely useful, as the astounding technologies that surround us in modern life make obvious.  But contrary to what some proponents of scientism suppose, it simply doesn’t follow for a moment that that conception gives us an exhaustive conception of the material world, for reasons I have stated many times (e.g. here). [...]
Then there is social science.  When we abstract from concrete human beings their purely economic motivations, ignoring everything else and then reifying this abstraction, the result is homo economicus, a strange creature who, unlike real people, is driven by nothing but the desire to maximize utility.  Nietzschean analyses of human motivation in terms of the will to power are less susceptible of mathematical modeling (and thus less “scientific”), but are variations on the same sort of error.  Evolutionary psychology often combines abstractions of the natural scientific and social scientific sort.  Like the neuroscientist, the evolutionary psychologist often treats parts of human beings as if they were substances independent of the whole from which they have been abstracted (”selfish genes,” “memes”), and adds to this reification the abstractions of the economist (e.g. game theory).
As the neuroscientific and sociobiological examples indicate, the Reification Fallacy is often combined with other fallacies.  In these cases, parts of a whole substance are first abstracted from it and treated as if they were substances in their own right (e.g. brain hemispheres, genes); and then a second, “Mereological Fallacy” (as Bennett and Hacker call it) is committed, in which what is intelligibly attributed only to the whole is attributed to the parts (e.g. the left hemisphere of the brain is said to “interpret,” and genes are said to be “selfish”). [...]
The irony is that while New Atheists and others beholden to scientism pride themselves on being “reality based,” that is precisely what they are not.  Actual, concrete reality is extremely complicated.  There is far more to material systems than what can be captured in the equations of physics, far more to human beings than can be captured in the categories of neuroscience or economics, and far more to religion than can be captured in the ludicrous straw men peddled by New Atheists.  All of these simplifying abstractions (except the last) have their value, but when we treat them as anything more than simplifying abstractions we have left the realm of science and entered that of ideology.  The varieties of reductionism, eliminativism, and the “hermeneutics of suspicion” are manifestations of this tendency to replace real things with abstractions.  They are all attempts to “conquer the abundance” of reality (as Paul Feyerabend might have put it), to force the world in all its concrete richness into a straightjacket.

I find this interesting in the way that smart people are likely to disagree with the correct interpretation of some of its claims - while others would say the post is worshipping the mysterious, others would say that it's just making reasonable cautions about the inherent methodological limitations of a certain approach. One might even think that it's essentially making a similar point as Eliezer's warning about floating beliefs, and therefore to agree with the Sequences. The caution of "beware of thinking that your abstractions say everything that there is to be said about something" is a reasonable one, and people do clearly make that mistake sometimes.

I expect that part of what influences how plausible one finds this argument depends on whether one has more of an "engineer's mindset" or a "philosopher's mindset". Somebody with an engineer's mindset will think that "yes, the abstractions we use might be imperfect, but what else do you propose we use? They're still the best tool for accomplishing stuff, and anything else is just philosophcial nonsense that isn't grounded in anything". Whereas the philosopher is less interested in using their knowledge to "accomplish stuff", and more interested in the ideas and their implications themselves.

As an aside, this distinction might be part of the reason why we have so many computer or hard science folks on this site. Partially it's because Eliezer used a lot of CS jargon in writing the Sequences, but probably also because the Sequences, while philosophical in nature, are also very focused on practical results and getting empirical predictions out of your beliefs.

Looking at what we could use this distinction for (and thus taking an engineer's mindset) some people here have mentioned getting an "ick" reaction from religious people, just due to those people having strong false beliefs. I think that, combined with properly understanding the emotional basis of religion, an understanding of the philosopher / engineer distinction can help avoid that reaction. Our values determine our beliefs, and there are plenty of religious people who aren't stupid, crazy, or anything like that. They might simply be philosophers instead of engineers, or they might be engineers who are more interested in the instrumental benefits of religion than the rather marginal benefits of x-rationality. (Amusingly, such a "religious engineer" might justifiably consider our obsession with "truth" as just an odd philosophical pursuit.)

The Problem Of Apostasy

10 Raw_Power 19 July 2012 10:27AM

So I have been checking laws around the world regarding Apostasy. And I have found extremely troubling data on the approach Muslims take to dealing with apostates. In most cases, publicly stating that you do not, in fact, love Big Brother (specifically, that you do not believe in God, the Prophet, or Islam), after having professed the Profession of Faith being adult and sane (otherwise, you were never a Muslim in the first place), will get you killed.

Yes, killed. It's one of the only three things traditional Islamic tribunals hand out death penalties for, the others being murder and adultery. 

However, interestingly enough, you are often given three days of detainment to "think it over" and "accept the faith". 

Some other countries, though, are more forgiving: you are allowed to be a public apostate. But you are still not allowed to proselytize: that remains a crime (in Morocco it's 15 years of prison, and a flogging). Though proselytism is also a crime if you are not a Muslim. I leave to your imagination how precarious the situation of religious minorities is, in this context.

How little sense all of this makes, from a theological perspective. Forcing someone to "accept the faith" at knife point? Forbidding you from arguing against the Lord's (reputedly) absolutely self-evident and miraculously beautiful Word? 

No. These are the patterns of sedition and treason laws. The crime of the Apostate is not one against the Lord (He can take care of Himself, and He certainly can take care of the Apostate) but against the State (existence of a human lord contingent on political regime). 

And the lesswronger asks himself: "How is that my concern? Please, get to the point." The point is that the promotion of rationalism faces a terrible obstacle there. We're not talking "God Hates You" placards, or getting fired from your job. We're talking fire range and electric chair.

"Sure," you say, "but rationalism is not about atheism." And you'd be right. It isn't. It's just a very likely conclusion for the rationalist mind to reach, and, also, our cult leader (:P) is a raging, bitter, passionate atheist. That is enough. If word spreads and authorities find out, just peddling HPMOR might get people jailed. And that's not accounting for the hypothetical (cough) case of a young adult reading the Sequences and getting all hotheaded about it and doing something stupid. Like trying to promote our brand of rationality in such hostile terrain.

So, let's take this hypothetical (harrumph) youth. They see irrationality around them, obvious and immense, they see the waste and the pain it causes. They'd like to do something about it. How would you advise them to go about it? Would you advise them to, in fact, do nothing at all?  

More importantly, concerning Less Wrong itself, should we try to distance ourselves from atheism and anti-religiousness as such? Is this baggage too inconvenient, or is it too much a part of what we stand for?

[Link] Nerds are nuts

25 Konkvistador 07 June 2012 07:48AM

Related to: Reason as memetic immune disorder, Commentary on compartmentalization

On the old old gnxp site site Razib Khan wrote an interesting piece on a failure mode of nerds. This is I think something very important to keep in mind because for better or worse LessWrong is nerdspace. It deals with how the systematizing tendencies coupled with a lack of common sense can lead to troublesome failure modes and identifies some religious fundamentalism as symptomatic of such minds. At the end of both the original article as well as in the text I quote here is a quick list summary of the contents, if you aren't sure about the VOI consider reading that point by point summary first to help you judge it. The introduction provides interesting information very useful in context but isn't absolutely necessary.

Link to original article.


Reading In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India, I stumbled upon this passage on page 151:

"...Whereas the Congress Party was dominated by lawyers and journalists, the RSS was dominated by people from a scientific background. Both groups were almost exclusively Brahmin in their formative years...three out of four of Hedegwar's [the founder, who was a doctor -Razib] successors were also from scientific backgrounds: M.S. Golwalker...was a zoologist...Rajendra Singh was a physicist; and K.S. Sudarshan...is an engineer...."

Some quick "background." The RSS is a prominent member of the Hindutva movement, roughly, Hindu nationalism. Some people have termed them "Hindu fundamentalists," suggesting an equivalence with reactionary religious movements the world over. There is a problem with such a broad brush term: some proponents and adherents of Hindutva are not themselves particularly religious and make no effort to pretend that they are. Rather, they are individuals who are attracted to the movement for racial-nationalist reasons, they view "Hindus" as a people as much, or more than, a religion. One could make an argument that the "Christian Right" or "Islamism" are not at the root concerned or driven by religious motives, but, members of both these movements would assert at least a pretense toward religiosity almost universally.

With that preamble out of the way, I was not surprised that the RSS had a core cadre of scientifically oriented leaders. This is a common tendency amongst faux reactionary movements with a religious element. I say faux because these movements tend to be extremely innovative and progressive in the process of attempting to recreate a mythic golden past. The militancy of some of the organizations in the Hindutva movement, like the VHP and RSS, has been asserted by some Hindu intellectuals as being...un-Hindu. Some of the early intellectuals in the movement admitted that they were attempting to fight back against Islam and Christianity by co-opting some of the modalities of these two religions. The question becomes at what point does pragmatic methodology suborn the ultimate ends? I won't offer an answer because I have little interest in that topic, at least in this post. Rather, I want to move back to the point about scientists and their involvement in "fundamentalist" religious movements. Scientifically trained individuals are over represented within Islam in the Salafist Terror Network. As a child the fundamentalist engineer was a cut-out stereotype amongst the circle of graduate students in the natural sciences from Muslim backgrounds that my parents socialized amongst. Ethnological research confirms that Islamist movements are highly concentrated within departments of engineering at universities. Engineers are also very prominent in the Creationist movement in the United States. If civilizations can be analogized to organisms, then a particular subset of technically minded folk get very strange when interfacing with the world around us...and turn into fundamentalists.

So why the tendency for technical people to be so prominent in these groups? First, let me clarify that just because technical folk are heavily over represented amongst religious radicals does not mean that religious radicals are necessarily a large demographic among technical folk. Rather, amongst the set of religious radicals the technicians seem to rise up to positions of power and provide excellent recruits.

There is I think a socioeconomic angle on this. Years back I was curious as to the class origin of different scientific professions. I didn't find much, but the data I did gather implied that engineers are generally more likely to be from less affluent backgrounds than more abstract and less practical fields like botany or astronomy. This makes sense, engineering is one of the best tickets to a middle class livelihood, and it might necessitate fewer social graces (acquired through "breeding") than medicine or law. As it happens, oftentimes fundamentalist movements draw much of their strength from upwardly mobile groups who are striving to ascend up from lower to lower-middle-class status. Though the Hindutva movement in India is mostly upper caste, it is not concentrated amongst the English speaking super elite who are quite Westernized, but rather its strength lay amongst the non-Western sub-elites (e.g., merchants in small to mid-sized cities) or the petite bourgeois. Islamism in much of the world can be traced to the anomie generated by the transformation of "traditional" societies through urbanization and other assorted dislocations, and as peasants enter the modern world Islamic orthodoxy is a way to moor themselves within the new urban matrix and the world of wage labor. Similarly, the rise of the Christian Right can be tied in part to the entrance of evangelicals into the broad middle class as the Old South became the New South and air conditioning led to the blossoming of the Sun Belt.

Nerd Failure Mode

This section is the part most relevant to LessWrong: 

But there are likely other factors at play which are not sociological or cultural, but individual. Fundamentalists tend to be "literalists," and have a tendency to look at their religious texts as divine manuals which describe and prescribe every aspect of the world. In some ways this is a new tendency in our species, at least as a mass movement. One can definitely trace scriptural fundamentalism to the Protestant Reformation with the call to sola scriptura, but in the West its contemporary origin can be found in the reaction in the late 19th century and early 20th century to textual analysis of the Bible by modernists. The assault on the historicity of the Bible, combined with both mass literacy and a democratic culture in the United States, led inevitably to a crass literalism that birthed the peculiarities which we see before us in the form of Creationism and its sisters. A literal reading of the Bible leads to ludicrous conclusions, but if one perceives that the game is all or nothing, then perhaps one must assert the truth value of Genesis as if it was a scientific treatise. Religious professionals have often been skeptical of literalism because a deep knowledge of languages and the translation process highlights various ambiguities and gray shades, but for those whom the text is plain and unadorned by deeper knowledge its meaning is "clear" and must be take at its word. Scientists and engineers live in a world of axioms, laws and theories, which though rough and ready, must be taken as truths for predictions and models to be valid. You make assumptions, you construct a model, and you project a range of values bounded by errors. Once science is established you take it is as a given and don't engage in excessive philosophical reflection. This is "normal science." The axioms are validated by their utility in an instrumental fashion in engineering and model building. Obviously religious truths are different. Plainly, the direct material benefits of religion, magic, is easily falsifiable. The indirect benefits, the afterlife, etc., are often beyond verification. A critical examination of the Hebrew Bible shows all sorts of fallacious assumptions. For example, there is an implication that the world is flat and that the sun revolves around the earth. Though these contentions are not defensible, there are a host of other assertions which are less plainly incorrect, or at least seem to be refuted only by a more complex suite of contingent facts (e.g., the historical sciences in the form of geology and evolutionary biology falsify the creation account, but these are complex stories which require acceptance of a chain of inferences). Obviously many religious people have a deep emotional attachment to their faith. If one is told that one's religion is based on a book, and that book plainly seems to imply ludicrous assertions, how to square this circle? Many a scientific mind simply accepts the ludicrous axioms and starts to generate inferences. Consider the Water Canopy Theory. Or, the Hindutva ideology that Aryans originated in India, spread to the rest of the world, and so brought civilization (the gift of the Indians). Or that Hindu mythology records the ancient use of nuclear weapons and spaceships. There are even books like Human Devolution: a Vedic alternative to Darwin's theory. Strictly speaking much of this work is not irrational, insofar as it exhibits internal logical coherency. The axioms are simply ludicrous.

Which gets me back to the way scientists think: though some scientists are very philosophical, the way in which science is taught is often not particularly focused on the nature and reasoning beyond the axioms given. PV = nRT. Why? There are quick primers in regards to the root of the Ideal Gas Law, but the key is to take this law and utilize it to solve problems. But what if PV = nRT is subjective, a misinterpretation. Perhaps a cultural mix-up resulted in a transcription error which introduced the gas constant, R. This is an idiotic question to ask in science. If you're taking a course on the kinetics of gases you don't have long discussions lingering upon the nature of motion and gas particles, those are assumed. In contrast in softer disciplines the very concept of "motion" an "particles" are subject to critique because the objects of study are far more slippery. Is it the "Red Sea" or "Sea of Reeds"? Does the Bible refer to Mary as a virgin or an unmarried woman? Does the color coding of the Aryans and Dasas in the Vedas refer to literal differences in complexion, or are they narrative conventions? Language lacks the interpersonal precision of mathematics, and while uniformitarianism has served us admirably in the natural sciences, the dynamic nature of idiom, phrase and speech within shifting context means that teasing apart meaning from the records of the past can be a difficult feat which requires care, erudition and common sense.

Up until this point I have focused on the way scientists work, and the necessity of background assumptions, and the relative short shrift they often give to the "meta" analysis of background concepts. Though I don't want to push this line of thought too far, I will offer the following illustrations of behaviors which I think are not totally unlike the manner in which some fundamentalists behave. Someone tells a child to "pull the door behind" them. He proceeds to unscrew the hinges and drag the front door across to the street to his house. Siblings are told that there is life after death by their parent. They proceed to plan the death of one so that some confirmation of this possibility can be ascertained. These two instances are real examples of individuals who exhibit Autism/Asperger's Syndrome. Anyone who would behave in this way lacks common social sense. I believe that a disproportionate number of those who are attracted to fundamentalism tend to lack the same perspective and contextualizing capacity in regards to their religious beliefs. If they can do some matrix algebra too, they're nerds. On a mass scale, consider that both Salafis among Muslims and Puritans among Calvinists debated whether all that was not mentioned within their Holy Texts as permissible were therefore impermissible. I suspect that for most people common sense might persuade one to the conclusion that these sort of debates imply a lack of a sense of proportion, frankly, of normalcy.

In sum:

  • Hard core religious fundamentalists are somewhat atypical psychologically
  • Scientists and engineers are also atypical psychologically
  • Some of the traits modal within these two sets intersect
  • Resulting in a disproportionate number of scientists amongst fundamentalists
  • Science converges upon rock solid truths, which become the axioms for the next set of projections and investigations. Fundamentalism presents itself as axioms and clear and distinct inferences from those axioms. Both are fundamentally elegant and simple cognitive processes, but, the content is so radically different that the outcomes in regards to truth value are very different
  • Mass literacy and mass society, as well as the decentralization of authority and power, likely made fundamentalism inevitable as the basal level of individuals with susceptible psychological profiles could now have direct access to the axioms in question (texts)
  • Just as some scientists tend to take ideas to their "logical extremes" (e.g., the "paradoxes" of physics) no matter the dictates of common sense, so some fundamentalists take the logical conclusion of their religious texts to extremes
  • No matter the religion it seems that modernity will produce faux reactionary fundamentalism because of the nature of normal human variation combined with universal inputs (e.g., the rise of normative consumerism, urbanization, etc.).

I bolded the note on mass literacy and participation because of the interesting historical conclusion that in the United Stated mass participation in democracy inevitably made the influence of religion on policy greater. It goes against a deep assumption shared by most educated people that "democratic elections" necessarily produce "liberal" or "secular" results. It was particularly evident among pundits and particularly easy to see as foolish with the recent upheavals in the Middle East.  

Note: Much of what I said above applies to non-religious domains. After all, many scientists were once Communists and Nazis.

This last rather minor seeming note is perhaps the most relevant part of the article for aspiring rationalist. Not only is it particularly salient for those us inclined to questioning the usefulness of the category "religion" in certain context, but because nearly all of us are not religious. Our bad axioms seem unlikely to originate directly from something like a religious texts, though obviously it is plausible many of our axioms ultimately originate from such sources.Not many of us are Communists either, but we are attracted to highly consistent ideologies. We seem likely to be particularly vulnerable to bad axioms in a way most minds aren't.

So if after some thought and examination you notice that a widely respected and universally endorsed axiom in your society has clear and hard to deny implications that are in practice ignored or even denounced by most people, you should be more willing to dump such axioms than is comfortable.

[LINK] System 2 thinking decreases religious belief

5 maia 27 April 2012 01:36PM

This experiment, to be published in Science, used priming (cues like hard-to-read fonts, showing participants the sculpture The Thinker) and problem-solving tasks to induce "analytical thinking" in the participants, and found that it seemed to reduce their degree of religious belief. Participants not given such tasks showed no such reduction.

Their methods of quantifying "religious belief" aren't given in detail (a questionnaire, probably), so it may be interesting to see the actual article when it comes out.

On the etiology of religious belief

11 gwern 11 March 2012 12:03AM

From "Trust in testimony and miracles":

I have been of late fascinated by the research of the developmental psychologist Paul L. Harris, who has investigated how young children acquire information through testimony. Harris gauges two psychological hypotheses. The first, which he attributes to Hume, is that children always assess the content of the information: they are more inclined to disbelieve information that widely differs from their earlier experience. The second, which he identifies with Reid's position is that children are naturally credulous; they are inclined to indiscriminately believe what others testify, no matter who they are or what they tell.

continue reading »

Writing about Singularity: needing help with references and bibliography

4 [deleted] 05 March 2012 01:27AM


It was Yudkowsky's Fun Theory sequence that inspired me to undertake the work of writing a novel on a singularitarian society... however, there are gaps I need to fill, and I need all the help I can get. It's mostly book recommendations that I'm asking for.


One of the things I'd like to tackle in it would be the interactions between the modern, geeky Singularitarianisms, and Marxism, which I hold to be somewhat prototypical in that sense, as well as other utopisms. And contrasting them with more down-to-earth ideologies and attitudes, by examining the seriously dangerous bumps of the technological point of transition between "baseline" and "singularity". But I need to do a lot of research before I'm able to write anything good: if I'm not going to have any original ideas, at least I'd like to serve my readers with a collection of well-researched. solid ones.


So I'd like to have everything that is worth reading about the Singularity, specifically the Revolution it entails (in one way or another) and the social aftermath. I'm particularly interested in the consequences of the lag of the spread of the technology from the wealthy to the baselines, and the potential for baselines oppression and other forms of continuation of current forms of social imbalances, as well as suboptimal distribution of wealth. After all, according to many authors, we've had the means to end war, poverty and famine, and most infectious diseases, since the sixties, and it's just our irrational methods of wealth distribution That is, supposing the commonly alleged ideal of total lifespan and material welfare maximization for all humanity is what actually drives the way things are done. But even with other, different premises and axioms, there's much that can be improved and isn't, thanks to basic human irrationality, which is what we combat here.


Also, yes, this post makes my political leanings fairly clear, but I'm open to alternative viewpoints and actively seek them. I also don't intend to write any propaganda, as such. Just to examine ideas, and scenarios, for the sake of writing a compelling story, with wide audience appeal. The idea is to raise awareness of the Singularity as something rather imminent ("Summer's Coming"), and cause (or at least help prepare) normal people to question the wonders and dangers thereof, rationally.


It's a frighteningly ambitious, long-term challenge, I am terribly aware of that. And the first thing I'll need to read is a style-book, to correct my horrendous grasp of standard acceptable writing (and not seem arrogant by doing anything else), so please feel free to recommend as many books and blog articles and other material as you like. I'll take my time going though it all.


Hassa Deega Ebowai or the paradox of religiousness in front of adversity

-4 [deleted] 17 February 2012 04:01PM

Hasa Diga Ebowai (["Does it mean "no worries for the rest of our lives?"" *"Kinda"*](http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=endscreen&NR=1&v=AhxChl9bGl0)) is a song from Trey Parker and Matt Stone's "The Book of Mormon", an affectionate parody of religion in general. A lot of the comedy in that song is drawn from the unexpectedness of the reaction to adversity displayed within. Do listen to it before proceeding.

The stereotype is that, when troubled and in a position of weakness, where they have no power over their fates, humans tend to turn towards the LORD for consolation. Especially if the religion promises a good afterlife to the patient, meek and submissive, and a bad one to the defiant and insolent. Even when it doesn't (such as in most denominations of Judaism, AFAIK), people are encouraged to not "curse His rotten" name when everything goes wrong for them and they can't do anything about it (see book of Job).

The other side of the stereotype is that, the more powerful, confident and knowledgeable humans become, the less religious they become. This can also be seen on the time axis of a single individual's existence when, young, they care little about sin and the afterlife, and, old, they do nothing but pray all day to make up for all the awful stuff they did (and there might be some genuinely awful behavior in there).

So I've been trolling Wikipedia for examples of demographics and populations that would have commonly practiced the cursing of the LORD, but I only found reference to vikings doing that, in a "I won't believe in you, but I will believe in me, and live by my own strength" kind of way, which isn't exactly what I'm looking for.

Does anyone here know anything about these different ways people react to adversity, and what they mean from a rationalistic standpoint?

[Link] Five ways to classify belief systems

15 Konkvistador 17 January 2012 09:08PM

On recommendation from several LessWrongers I've been over the past year or so occasionally digging into the many long posts to be found in the archives of Unqualified Reservations (archive links best accessed from here). It is written by Mencius Moldbug, who is probably familiar to many of us here as well as to readers of Overcoming Bias. He is an erudite, controversial and most of all contrarian social critic and writer.

He sometimes repeats and often refines his key ideas. He uses his writing style as a barrier to entry (it is debatable if this does more harm than good for his quality of thought and communication, but it is an interesting way to aim for the correct contrarian cluster), thus he is an acquired taste, posters have recommended the gentle introduction series as good place to start reading him. This series is similar, while this one and The Formalist Manifesto focus more on summarizing his political thought, which may also be useful in itself.

Link to topical entry is here. Link to discussion on previous entry I read is here.

Five ways to classify belief systems

I use the word kernel to mean "belief system." Kernels, like Gaul, are divided into three parts: assertions about the real world (Hume's "is"), moral judgments about the real world (Hume's "ought"), and paranormal or other metaphysical propositions (such as David Stove's wonderful ruminations on the number 3).

Everyone, no matter how smart or stupid, has exactly one kernel. However, kernels are not assigned randomly, as if in some weird Buddhist boot process. For example, your kernel is likely to show similarities to that of your parents, friends, teachers, karate masters, favorite anchormen, etc, etc.

Let's call a kernel pattern which many people share a prototype. Methodism, environmentalism, firearms practice, snake handling and Burning Man attendance are all prototypes. While there are few Methodist environmentalists who are also snake-handling marksmen and never miss a burn, various subcombinations are not uncommon.

In general we are most interested in complete prototypes, that is, kernel patterns that are broad enough to serve as identities. It is common to describe someone as "a Methodist," or (not quite in the same way) as "an environmentalist." People who match the other prototypes above may use nouns for themselves, but they're must less likely to be described or introduced as such. An incomplete prototype simply says less about you. For example, many snake handlers are also committed peace activists who drive Range Rovers and shop at Pottery Barn.

Two common examples of a complete prototype are religions, which involve convictions about one or more anthropomorphic paranormal entities, and idealisms, which involve convictions about one or more undefined universals, or ideals.

Many people consider the distinction between religion and idealism important and/or interesting, but here at UR we don't much care for it, since only metaphysical propositions can distinguish the two. You can go from religion to idealism and back simply by adding and subtracting gods, angels, demons, saints, ghosts, etc. I personally have slain many ghosts and quite a few demons, and I once kidnapped an angel and forced her at swordpoint to lead me to the altar of Thoth, where I sacrificed her for 20,000 experience points, permanent immunity to fire, and an alignment change to chaotic evil. However, this was not in real life. And even in D&D, I've never had the misfortune to encounter a god.

On LessWrong already discussed a more extensive form of this argument in "Belief in religion considered harmful?".  

Therefore, we'll just use the word prototype to mean either religion or idealism. Of course one can study either forever. In fact, most scholars in history have spent most of their time investigating the twisty little passages, all alike, of one single prototype. However, since here at UR we are generalists, not Irish monks, Talmudic scribes or Koranic talibs, we will try and work a little more broadly.

Before you can really think about prototypes, you have to be able to name and classify them. One obvious analogy is the study of languages, which are transmitted from person to person in a vaguely similar way. Prototype transmission really has nothing in common with language transmission, but the metaproblems are the same: what does it mean to say, "X descends from Y?" Is a classification tree a tree, or a directed acyclic graph? Is variation continuous, or discrete? Etc, etc, etc.

Probably readers can add a few, but I can think of five ways to classify prototypes: nominalist, typological, morphological, cladistic, and adaptive.

As our example for each, let's use the movement generally known as the Enlightenment. There is no noun for people whose kernels match the Enlightenment prototype, but there should be, because this noun arguably applies to almost everyone on earth. Let's call these suspicious characters Luminists. Their sinister views can be described as Luminism.

A nominalist classification simply accepts the prototype's classification of itself. Luminists, for example, believe there is no such thing as Luminism. (This is very common.) Rather, they are simply people who have seen the light of reason. It just so happened that they all saw more or less the same light at more or less the same time. But since by definition there's only one such thing as reason, this explanation is not inherently implausible.

A typological classification distinguishes prototypes according to specific features. For example, when you distinguish between religions and idealisms - as between Christianity and Luminism - you are performing an act of typology. The flaws in this approach can be seen by the fact that a typological classification of languages tells us Old Saxon is a dialect of Early Apache, since they both have arbitrary word order and long, incomprehensible sentences. Meanwhile, a vampire bat is a grinning, hairy owl, IHOP and Domino's both serve round food, Congress is considering a new O visa for ostriches, Burmese tribeswomen and other long-necked bipeds, and Luminism is a kind of Confucian Sufi-Buddhism.

A morphological classification is like a typological classification with a clue. It attempts to construct a historical descent tree by looking at multiple points of similarity. Morphological classification tells us that Luminism is actually a sect of Christianity, because Luminists share a wide range of kernel features with many Christians, and there are even intermediate forms which can reasonably be described as Christian Luminists or Luminist Christians.

A cladistic classification also produces a historical descent tree, but it uses a completely different method. Cladistic classification ignores actual beliefs and looks only at patterns of conversion. It asks: if you are a Luminist and your parents were not Luminists, what were they? Since the answer is usually (if not always) "Christian," in this case cladistics produces the same result as morphology For obvious reasons, this is often so.

Besides the usual trees, both morphological and cladistic methods can also produce graph structure, that is, patterns of combination or syncretism. For example, both methods identify Hellenistic and Jewish roots for Christianity, with the cladistic method adding various Roman cults such as those of Augustus, Sol Invictus, and Mithra.

An adaptive classification is not interested at all in descent. Rather, it focuses on how and why the prototype succeeds. For example, Luminism, Christianity, Sol Invictus and Islam are all prototypes that succeeded (at one time or another) by virtue of being an official prototype, that is, by explaining the legitimacy of a government - helping to organize its supporters, strike fear into the hearts of its enemies, brainwash its dutiful taxpaying serfs, etc, etc, etc. But with the exception of the third, all the above have also done just fine in an unofficial capacity, so this official selection is not a complete explanation of their success.

Of course, I personally find the last three classification methods the most compelling, with my favorites being the morphological and adaptive methods. But words are just words, and anyone can look at these phenomena any way they like. And if you can suggest any additions to the list, the comments section is, as usual, open.

Upon introspection I generally seem to implicitly use adaptive frames for "kernels" in ancient societies I don't know very well (or which don't have a well preserved written history - say like an explanation for widespread human sacrifice in Mesoamerica) and when I just read something by Dawkins. Morphological when thinking about religion in ancient literate societies I know quite a bit about like say the Roman Empire and nominalist when deciding how I classify modern religions like Mormonism.

There are other examples, but overall Moldbug's division seems to me to capture most of my differing approaches to thinking about "kernels" and indeed they do seem to be running on different algorithms. The obvious question which I hope to discuss in the comment section is which of these approaches is most useful under different sets of circumstances and goals.

Doing some thought on it his take on the concept and his division of the categories. In itself it seems a somewhat useful framework for thinking about intellectual fashion and ideological or religious transformation.

Religious dogma as group identity

7 uzalud 28 December 2011 10:12AM

I was reading the "Professing and Cheering" article and it reminded me about some of my own ideas about the role of religious dogma as group identity badges. Here's the gist of it:

Religious and other dogmas need not make sense. Indeed, they may work better if they are not logical. Logical and useful ideas pop-up independently and spread easily, and widely accepted ideas are not very good badges. You need a unique idea to identify your group. It helps to have a somewhat costly idea as a dogma, because they are hard to fake and hard to deny. People would need to invest in these bad ideas, so they would be less likely to leave the group and confront the sunk cost. Also, it's harder to deny allegiance to the group afterwards, because no one in their right minds would accept an idea that bad for any other reason.

If you have a naive interpretation of the dogma, which regards it as an objective statement about the world, you will tend to question it. When you’re contesting the dogma, people won’t judge your argument on its merits: they will look at it as an in-group power struggle. Either you want to install your own dogma, which makes you a pretender, or you’re accepted a competing dogma, which makes you a traitor. Even if they accept that you just don’t want to yield to the authority behind the dogma, that makes you a rebel. Dogmas are just off-limits to criticism.

Public display of dismissive attitude to your questioning is also important. Taking it into consideration is in itself a form of treason, as it is interpreted as entertaining the option of joining you against the authority. So it’s best to dismiss the heresy quickly and loudly, without thinking about it.

Do you know of some other texts which shed some light on this idea?


[Link] Belief in religion considered harmful?

24 Konkvistador 17 December 2011 10:38PM

I've recently run across this 2007 post on the blog Unqualified Reservations (archive best read here). It is written by Mencious Moldbug, who is probably familiar to some Overcoming Bias and Lesswrong readers. He is a erudite, controversial and most of all contrarian social critic and writer. In 2010 he debated Robin Hanson on the subject of Futarchy.

Why do atheists believe in religion?

Not everyone these days believes in God. But pretty much everyone believes in religion.

By "believing in religion," I mean recognizing a significant categorical distinction between "religious" phenomena, and those that are "nonreligious" or "secular."

For example, the concepts of "freedom of religion" and "separation of church and state" are dependent on the concept of "religion." If "religion" is a noninformative, unimportant, or confusing category, these concepts must also be noninformative, unimportant, or confusing.

Since most atheists, agnostics, etc, consider the First Amendment pretty important, we can assume they "believe in religion."

My question is: why? Is this a useful belief? Does it help us understand the world? Or does it confuse or misinform us? Once again, our team of crack philosophers is on the case.

Let's rule out the possibility that "religion" is noninformative. We can define "religion" as the attribution of existence to anthropomorphic paranormal entities. This definition has its fuzzy corner cases, notably some kinds of Buddhism, but it's short and it'll do for the moment.

We are left with the question: is "religion" an important or clarifying category? Or is it unimportant and confusing?

If you believe in God, obviously you have to believe in religion. Religion is an important category because your religion is true, and all other religions are false. (As Sam Harris puts it, "everyone's an atheist with respect to Zeus.")

For atheists of the all-around variety - including me - the question remains. Why do we believe in "religion?"

One obvious answer is that we have to share the planet with a lot of religious people. If you are an atheist, there is no getting around it: religion, as per Dawkins, is a delusion. Deluded people do crazy things and are often dangerous. We need to have a category for these people, just as we have a category for "large, man-eating carnivores." Certainly, religious violence has killed a lot more people lately than lions, tigers, or bears.

This argument sounds convincing, but it hides a fallacy.

The fallacy is that the distinction between "religion" and other classes of delusion must be clarifying or important. If there is a case for this proposition, we haven't met it yet.

Peoples' actions matter. And peoples' beliefs matter, because they motivate actions.

But actions in the real world must be motivated by beliefs about the real world. Delusions about the paranormal world are only relevant - at least to us atheists - in the special case that they motivate delusions about the real world.

So, as atheists, why should we care about the former? Why not forget about the details of metaphysical doctrine, which pertain to an ethereal plane that doesn't even exist, and concentrate our attention on beliefs about reality?

If you believe that nine Jewish virgins need to be thrown into Mt. Fuji, you are, in my opinion, deluded. Whether you believe this because you are receiving secret messages from Amaterasu Omikami, or because it's just payback for the dirty deeds of the Elders of Zion, affects neither me nor the virgins.

If you believe "partial-birth abortion" is wrong because it's "against God's law," or if you think it's just "unethical," your vote will be the same.

If you are tolerant and respectful of others because you think Allah wants you to be tolerant and respectful of others, how can I possibly have a problem with this? If you stab people in the street because you've misinterpreted Nietzsche and decided that morality is not for you, is that less of a problem?

Lots of people have delusions about the real world. People believe all kinds of crazy things for all kinds of crazy reasons. Some even believe sensible things for crazy reasons. Why should we establish a special category for delusions that are motivated by anthropomorphic paranormal forces?

A reasonable answer is: why not?

Certainly, religion is an important force in the world today. Certainly at least some forms of religion - "fundamentalist," one might say - are actively dangerous. No one is actually stabbing people in the street because of Nietzsche. The same cannot be said for Allah.

How can it possibly confuse or distract us to recognize and protect ourselves against this important class of delusion?

To see the answer, we need to break Godwin's Law.

Which I think may indeed be appropriate. 

Suppose Hitler had declared that, rather than being just some guy from Linz, he was Thor's prophet on earth. (Some people would have been positively delighted by this.) Suppose that everything the Nazis did was done in the name of Thor. Suppose, in other words, that Nazism was in the category "religion."

This is by no means a new idea.

Violating Godwin's law to breach the fence between religion and ideology to see what cognitive dissonances we can dredge up is old hat for us LWers (A Parable On Obsolete Ideologies 2009 by Yvain).

Many writers, including Eric Voegelin, Eric Hoffer, Victor Klemperer, Michael Burleigh, etc, etc, have described the similarities between Nazism and religions. But Nazism does not fit our definition of religion above - no paranormal entities. This is the definition most people use, so most people don't think of Nazism as a religion.

The Allies invaded Nazi Germany and completely suppressed Nazism. To this day in Germany it is illegal to teach National Socialism. I think most Americans, and most Germans, would agree that this is a good thing.

But if we make this one trivial change, turning Nazism into Thorism and making it a "religion," which as we've seen need not change the magnitude or details of Nazi crimes at all, the acts of the Allies are a blatant act of religious intolerance.

Aren't we supposed to respect other faiths? Shouldn't we at least have restricted our unfriendly attentions to "fundamentalist Nazism," and promoted a more "moderate" version of the creed? Suppose we gave the Taliban the same treatment? What, exactly, is the difference between Eisenhower's policy and Ann Coulter's?

It gets worse. Another one of Voegelin's "political religions," which by our definition are not religions at all (no anthropomorphic paranormal entities) is Marxism. Let's tweak Marxism slightly and assert that the writings of Marx were divinely inspired, leaving everything else in the history of Communism unchanged.

Marxism, unlike Nazism, is still very popular in the world today. A substantial fraction of the professors in Western universities are either Marxists, or strongly influenced by Marxist thought. Nor are these beliefs passive - many fields that are actively taught and quite popular, such as postcolonial studies, seem largely or entirely Marxist in content.

This is certainly not true of Nazism. It is also not true of Christianity or any other "religion" proper. Many professors are Christians, true, and some are even fundamentalists. But the US educational system is quite sensitive to the possibility that it might be indoctrinating youth with Christian fundamentalism. "Creation science," for example, is not taught in any mainstream university and seems unlikely to achieve that status.

If Marxism was a religion, Marxist economics would come pretty close to being the exact equivalent of "intelligent design." But, again, Marxism as religion and Marxism as non-religion involve exactly the same set of delusions about the real world. (Of course, to a Marxist, they are not delusions.)

Should non-Marxist atheists, such as myself, be as concerned about separating Marxism from state-supported education as we are with Christianity? If Marxism is a religion, or if the difference between Marxism as it is in the real world and the version in which Marx was a prophet is insignificant, our "wall of separation" is a torn-up chainlink fence.

But there was a period in which Americans tried to eradicate Marxism the way they fight against "intelligent design" today. It was called McCarthyism. And believers in civil liberties were on exactly the opposite side of the barricades.

As non-Marxist atheists, do we want McCarthy 2.0? Should loyalty oaths be hip this year? Should we schedule new hearings?

This is why the concept of "religion" is harmful. If trivial changes to hypothetical history convert reasonable policies into monstrous injustices, or vice versa, your perception of reality cannot be correct. You have been infected by a toxic meme.

If memes are analogous to parasitic organisms, believing in "religion" is like taking a narrow-spectrum antibiotic on an irregular schedule.
The Dawkins treatment - our latest version of what used to be called anticlericalism - wipes out a colony of susceptible bacteria which have spent a long time learning to coexist reasonably, if imperfectly, with the host. And clears the field for an entirely different phylum of bugs which are unaffected by antireligious therapy. Whose growth, in fact, it may even stimulate.

In the last two centuries, "political religions" have caused far, far more morbidity than "religious religions." But here we are with Dawkins, Harris, and Dennett - still popping the penicillin. Hm. Kind of makes you think, doesn't it?

I hope you can now see reason I've picked a partially misleading title, since I think Moldbug makes a pretty convincing argument that belief in "religion" may be considered harmful even for atheists, let alone those of us who aspire to refine rationality.

In such a model questions like "is the Church of Scientology a religion?" dissolve rapidly. Whether something should be tax exempt because it is "really" a "religion" or "a church" is a legal question of importance only to activists trying to challenge law and lawyers, that shouldn't change our ethical intuitions or cause us to try to imagine a sea or play up rather minor geographical features, to separate the continents of Religion and Ideology in our maps of reality.

Every single proposed mechanism for the retention and spread of religion from convenient curiosity stoppers, indoctrination of youth, to tribal identity markers hold for ideology just as strongly as for religion. Even seemingly very specific memetic adaptations like "God of the gaps", seem to arise in various non-theistic ideologies. Maybe similar adaptations arise because it is the same niche?

Thinking about the implications of such a hypothesis, atheism for one additional god is a rather easy step of rationality to take. Very few people believe in the great Juju or Zeus. Adding YHWH to the list isn't that much of a stretch, for those fortunate enough to be educated and living in most of the West.

But how hard is it for someone to question, in a unbiased fashion, such gods and holy words such as say Democracy?

Pascal's wager re-examined

-8 PhilGoetz 05 October 2011 08:43AM

Let P(chr) = the probability that the statements attributed to Jesus of Nazareth and Paul of Tarsus regarding salvation and the afterlife are factually mostly correct; and let U(C) be the utility of action C, where C is in {Christianity, Islam, Judaism, atheism}.

Two of the key criticisms of Pascal's wager are that

  • limit U(Christianity)→∞, P(chr)→0 P(chr)U(Christianity) is undefined, and
  • invoking infinite utilities isn't fair.

If, however, P(chr) is not infinitessimal, and U(Christianity) is merely very large, these counter-arguments fail.

continue reading »

The National Institute of Theology

-2 PhilGoetz 04 October 2011 06:21PM

Lots of charlatans spend lots of money advertising diets and health products that don't work.  We have a National Institutes of Health that, among other things, funds studies that make more-objective pronouncements on diet and health.

Argue pro or con:  It would be a good investment (payback would exceed opportunity cost) for the US government to create a National Institute of Theology, that would fund research into theological questions.  For instance:

  • How effective is prayer?
  • Which religions are the most effective (at healing the sick, making their adherents rich, or other metrics)?
  • What is the probability that someone will become happier, more productive, less violent, or commit acts of terrorism as a result of joining different religions (or not joining any)?

Everyone, religious and atheist, should be motivated to want the answers to these questions to become widely known.

(Yes, I know this would be politically impractical.  Pointing that out is not interesting.  What is interesting, is whether such a NIT would be beneficial, supposing it could be made.)

Religion, happiness, and Bayes

3 fortyeridania 04 October 2011 10:21AM

Religion apparently makes people happier. Is that evidence for the truth of religion, or against it?

(Of course, it matters which religion we're talking about, but let's just stick with theism generally.)

My initial inclination was to interpret this as evidence against theism, in the sense that it weakens the evidence for theism. Here's why:

  1. As all Bayesians know, a piece of information F is evidence for an hypothesis H to the degree that F depends on H. If F can happen just as easily without H as with it, then F is not evidence for H. The more likely we are to find F in a world without H, the weaker F is as evidence for H.
  2. Here, F is "Theism makes people happier." H is "Theism is true."
  3. The fact of widespread theism is evidence for H. The strength of this evidence depends on how likely such belief would be if H were false.
  4. As people are more likely to do something if it makes them happy, people are more likely to be theists given F.
  5. Thus F opens up a way for people to be theists even if H is false.
  6. It therefore weakens the evidence of widespread theism for the truth of H.
  7. Therefore, F should decrease one's confidence in H, i.e., it is evidence against H.

We could also put this in mathematical terms, where F represents an increase in the prior probability of our encountering the evidence. Since that prior is a denominator in Bayes' equation, a bigger one means a smaller posterior probability--in other words, weaker evidence.

OK, so that was my first thought.

But then I had second thoughts: Perhaps the evidence points the other way? If we reframe the finding as "Atheism causes unhappiness," or posit that contrarians (such as atheists) are dispositionally unhappy, does that change the sign of the evidence?

Obviously, I am confused. What's going on here?

The effects of religion (draft)

-5 Solvent 29 September 2011 01:11AM


I've written this essay about the effects of religion. I plan to post it in the main section. However, in my year or so of lurking here I've noticed that most of the first main posts people create are either irrelevant or bad, and end up down voting the poster to oblivion. To this aim, I first post it here, for your critique, and also to tell me if you think it's appropriate to post in the main section of LessWrong.



The effects of religion

In the atheist community, it's held as pretty much a self-proving truth thar religion is a bad thing. I have attempted to produce a taxonomy of the effects of religion, both positive and negative. This is written based on my personal experience of the Christian church, and on whatever actual facts I could find.

So. My list of the external effects of religion. These are given as both comparisons to normal people, who don't think much about religion or effective charity, and comparisons to LessWrongians.

It's worth pointing out that western society seems to have a lot of cached thoughts from Christianity. Normal people are often not Christian, but casually believe a lot of its teachings. As a result, many of the negative effects of Christianity affect non-Christians who don't pay particular attention to their beliefs too.

The purpose of this essay is to determine if LessWrong should actively evangelize against religion. If we really wanted to, we could probably do so fairly easily. I conclude that it's probably not worthwhile doing so.

Charitable giving

The Christians I know all seem to give far more to charity, both in terms of money and time, than average people. Eliezer pointed this out somewhere, but I can't seem to find a reference. The giving probably isn't quite optimized, but it's a far cry better than nothing. A large proportion of the charity which the Christians I know support seems highly effective, and very little of it is optimized for evangelism alone.

It could be that by co-incidence I just happen to know particularly effective Christians for some reason.

It's worth considering the degree to which Christians and atheists disagree on what charities are worth supporting. The only things Christians support which atheists wouldn't as much are things like school chaplains, giving Bibles, and protesting for various Christian issues like opposing gay marriage and abortion. Ridiculous amounts are certainly spent on pointless lobbying, but as a proportion of total Christian charity giving, it can't be that massive.

I don't think there are any atheist organizations which provide enough peer pressure to have the members give as much, and I don't think many people would be as generous over the long term alone as compared to in church groups. So it's an open question to me as to whether your average LessWrongian would do more or less good via charity than your average Christian.

Aside from this, I think many Christians are fairly good at making an effort to be casually kind to those around them: at the very least they aren't as casually cruel as normal people can be. I expect that LessWrongians would be about as good as Christians at this.

Time and money spent on religion

Religious people spend time and money on religious materials, prayer, churches, and so on. The effect of this is probably neutral compared to what a normal person would be doing, as prayer, theology books and such seem to be fairly ineffective but probably not downright negative things. Again, I don't really know what normal people do with their time, but I don't guess that it would be any worse than anything religious. However, this is something which LessWrongians would surely do better at, as they could hopefully spend their time learning useful things or hopefully entertaining themselves in some more meaningful or effective ways.


No cryonics, attitude to death

One of the most important messages I've gotten out of Less Wrong and similar sources is that death is bad. However, religious people disagree, as a result of their belief in an afterlife. I don't know how much this actually matters. Religious people are highly unlikely to sign up for cryonics. However, according to the survey, more LessWrongians are theist than have signed up for cryonics, so I don't think this effect matters much.

For some bizarre reason, all the issues like abortion, the death penalty, bombing civilians in Arab countries, and euthanasia, where belief in a Christian afterlife would seem to me to encourage a left-leaning viewpoint, are also issues where the western church leans to the right. (For example, I'm not quite sure why anyone who believed in hell for nonbelievers would support war against Muslims.) So all these issues where you'd think their religious beliefs would throw them off, it seems more like their conservatism screws up their reasoning. Correlation not causation.

I would also expect most theists to value their own lives, and those of people in their religion, far less highly than those of people with different or no religions. This would be a minor problem, however it doesn't seem to come up at all in the real world.


Practice and or condoning of irrationality

Practicing things like faith, believing in things you have little evidence for, and the above being perceived as a sign of virtue is bad for rationality in other areas of your life. In this section I'm not talking about actual incorrect statements made by the religion. There's nothing in Christianity that explicitly says that, for example, wishing for things and believing you'll get them means that you will. However, Christian thinking implicitly gets your mind used to a world with meaning, sense, and your belief as a determining factor.

In particular, the mind projection fallacy is encouraged by religion. When you believe that there is an omniscient being who controls life, you're encouraged to see patterns where there are none, and see God's character in random events. This is bad.
Also, the central thesis of reductionism, that everything is comprised of ontologically simple elements, is contradicted by religion.
In Christianity at least, you're told that you need sufficient faith in order to successfully pray. This causes lots of rationality based problems. It's one of the axioms of LessWrong-style rationality that what you think does not affect the world. If you're religious, you don't believe that. It leads to things like "believing as hard as you can" and such.

Finally, religion encourages the just world hypothesis, as a result of belief in a benevolent creator. In Christianity, you can always say "But God made it that way" if you support something. This isn't encouraged by the Bible at all, but people still do it.


Actual factual errors in the religion

Obviously, people who believe in a revealed religion are going to walk around wrong about a lot of factual matters. So how many of these actually matter? Things like the power of prayer probably don't matter,as all the Christians I've ever met seem to consume medicine and make health decisions just like the next person.

Believing in creation has a few effects. Firstly, it encourages people to believe that we are well designed. This makes them less likely to accept the idea of cognitive biases. It makes them skeptical of evolutionary psychology, which is bad.

People may get some silly moral ideas, like opposition to homosexuality. But this is decreasing in prevalence, for example as shown by the existence of Christian support for gay marriage and abortion.



Consequentialism is pretty much common sense. However, most religions are phrased in terms of deontology. (This is actually a problem that Christianity doesn't need to have: Paul's comment "Everything is permissible, but not everything I'd beneficial" seems to be as clearly in favor of consequentialism as you're likely to get. Nevertheless, very few Christians seem to get this.) This frequently results in stupid beliefs, like a support of the death penalty, and things such as drug use being "just wrong". However, most normal people seem to default to deontology anyways, so it's hard to say that religion directly causes this problem.


Social pressures

Most Christians would be upset by how frankly LessWrong calls them idiots. As a result, they don't get many of the positive benefits of reading LW type materials. More generally, religious people are going to dislike and mistrust science to a greater extent. There's a lot of benefit to be gained by understanding and trusting science, for example with issues such as climate change.

They're also going to be discouraged from hanging around the intellectual types of people who are otherwise good for you. If you only read Christian media, you're exposed to a far lesser range of media, and you're more susceptible to the general conservative bias which pervades Christianity.


The effect of religious community

Many studies have shown that religiosity correlates with happiness and health. LessWrong seems to have a general consensus that this is as a result of the community created by a religion. Compared to the default position of a normal person, it's way better to be a churchgoer. It remains to be seen if LessWrong groups can be this effective, even though cases such as the New York Less Wrong group seem to be working fairly nicely from what I've heard.

Established religions have an extreme advantage over new organizations such as LessWrong chapters. To start with, they are already large and powerful. There aren't many places where there are enough rationalists to start something like the New York Less Wrong group (notice it's in New York). The people who are drawn to LessWrong are possibly the wrong demographic proportions to create lasting communities, particularly with an excess of young males. It's been previously pointed out that getting girls to show up is essential for LessWrong meetups and communities. So it's hard to get rationalist communities going which can rival religious communities' consistency.

There aren't many organizations like the general Christian church, which provide such a wide ranging base of peer support.


Religion seems to have a variety of positive and negative effects. Its most positive effects are encouraging charity and providing a stable community. The most negative effects are a general mistrust of science, and the various irrationalities which are applauded by religion.

And so, what should a LessWrongian do with respect to religious people? I think we should be polite to them. Religion doesn't have a bad enough effect to justify arguing against it. If by some chance you do convince them out of their faith, the chance that they won't just default to normal person mode and keep the cached thoughts of their religion is fairly low.

Additionally, by arguing with religious people, you make them distrust science and intellectuals and rationality. This is significantly more of a problem than the religion itself. Because of "arguments as soldiers" the religious person might start always looking out for cases of science being wrong, and also never listen to it, because if you listen to science, you're betraying your faith. This is very, very bad, far worse than just compartmentalizing your beliefs.

I recommend a policy of "raising the sanity waterline". Just casually improving everyone's rationality would be a far more effective goal. It doesn't look like being religious significantly affects your mental abilities in other fields: look at the proportion of religious Nobel prize winners.

There's little upside in specifically attempting to evangelize theists, so I suggest we shouldn't.



Cognitive Style Tends To Predict Religious Conviction (psychcentral.com)

10 Incorrect 23 September 2011 06:28PM


Participants who gave intuitive answers to all three problems [that required reflective thinking rather than intuitive] were one and a half times as likely to report they were convinced of God’s existence as those who answered all of the questions correctly.

Importantly, researchers discovered the association between thinking styles and religious beliefs were not tied to the participants’ thinking ability or IQ.

participants who wrote about a successful intuitive experience were more likely to report they were convinced of God’s existence than those who wrote about a successful reflective experience.

I think this is the source but I can't be sure:



Reddit /r/psychology discussion

Atheism & the autism spectrum

10 gwern 17 September 2011 11:59PM

"Religious Belief Systems of Persons with High Functioning Autism":

ABSTRACT: This paper investigates the proposal that individual differences in belief will reflect cognitive processing styles, with high functioning autism being an extreme style that will predispose towards nonbelief (atheism and agnosticism). This view was supported by content analysis of discussion forums about religion on an autism website (covering 192 unique posters), and by a survey that included 61 persons with HFA. Persons with autistic spectrum disorder were much more likely than those in our neurotypical comparison group to identify as atheist or agnostic, and, if religious, were more likely to construct their own religious belief system. Nonbelief was also higher in those who were attracted to systemizing activities, as measured by the Systemizing Quotient.

...Personality psychologists have identified two styles of reasoning: emphasis on logic and emphasis on intuition (Demaria, Kassinove & Dill 1989). As the Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) thinking traits are indicative of a logical cognitive style, we developed a set of thinking traits that would be represented in postings by neurotypical (NT) individuals.
The NT thinking traits embody the complimentary attributes of the ASD thinking traits. For example the NT thinking trait "emphasis on intuition" was developed to compliment the ASD thinking trait "emphasis on logic". The NT thinking traits looked for in the postings were emphasis on intuition, oriented towards social rewards, empathizing, symbolic fluidity/gestalt thinking, and openness to experience.
...[discussion forum analysis:] Religious beliefs were found to differ significantly between the HFA and NT populations, χ2 (12, N=387)= 43.69, p < .01. As shown in Figure 1, individuals with HFA were less likely to belong to an organized religion than their NT counterparts and were more likely to create their own religious belief system. The "own-construction" category comprised 16% of the HFA population as compared to only 6% of the NT population. HFA individuals also demonstrated higher rates of non-belief identities such as Atheism (26%) and Agnosticism (17%). In the NT group, only 17% of the population were Atheists and 10% were Agnostic.
...[survey:] Religious beliefs were found to differ significantly between the HFA and NT populations, __ (12, N= 166) = 22.698, p < .01. As was found in the content analysis of discussion forums, HFA questionnaire respondents were less likely than their NT counterparts to belong to an organized religion. HFA individuals were more likely to be atheist than were NT individuals. The "own construction" belief category was also found to be proportionally greater in the HFA population than in the NT population (see Figure 3).
...[from conclusion]: We suggest that individual differences in cognitive styles is an important predictor of human belief systems, including religious belief. An extreme type of cognitive style is high functioning autism. The 2 studies reported here found that individuals with HFA have a higher rate than neurotypicals of endorsing atheism and agnosticism. HFA individuals thus resemble another group of high-systemizers (scientists), who also reject religious belief at a relatively high rate.

Caldwell-Harris et al 2011.

Mostly as one would expect, although I am troubled that the second survey did not find any difference in agnostics, only the other categories.

See also: "How to be deader than dead".

'Paley's iPod: The cognitive basis of the design argument within natural theology'

1 lukeprog 11 September 2011 04:35AM

De Cruz & de Smedt (2010) tries to explain, using cognitive science, why many people find design arguments so compelling. Abstract:

The argument from design stands as one of the most intuitively compelling arguments for the existence of a divine Creator. Yet, for many scientists and philosophers, Hume’s critique and Darwin’s theory of natural selection have definitely undermined the idea that we can draw any analogy from design in artifacts to design in nature. Here, we examine empirical studies from developmental and experimental psychology to investigate the cognitive basis of the design argument. From this it becomes clear that humans spontaneously discern purpose in nature. When constructed theologically and philosophically correctly, the design argument is not presented as conclusive evidence for God’s existence but rather as an abductive, probabilistic argument. We examine the cognitive basis of probabilistic judgments in relationship to natural theology. Placing emphasis on how people assess improbable events, we clarify the intuitive appeal of Paley’s watch analogy. We conclude that the reason why some scientists find the design argument compelling and others do not lies not in any intrinsic differences in assessing design in nature but rather in the prior probability they place on complexity being produced by chance events or by a Creator. This difference provides atheists and theists with a rational basis for disagreement

How to be Deader than Dead

16 gwern 24 August 2011 03:47PM

For your consideration, a psychology study as summarized by The Economist in "How dead is dead? Sometimes, those who have died seem more alive than those who have not":

"They first asked 201 people stopped in public in New York and New England to answer questions after reading one of three short stories. In all three, a man called David was involved in a car accident and suffered serious injuries. In one, he recovered fully. In another, he died. In the third, his entire brain was destroyed except for one part that kept him breathing. Although he was technically alive, he would never again wake up.

...each participant was asked to rate David’s mental capacities, including whether he could influence the outcome of events, know right from wrong, remember incidents from his life, be aware of his environment, possess a personality and have emotions. Participants used a seven-point scale to make these ratings, where 3 indicated that they strongly agreed that he could do such things...and -3 indicated that they strongly disagreed.

...the fully recovered David rated an average of +1.77 and the dead David -0.29. That score for the dead David was surprising enough, suggesting as it did a considerable amount of mental acuity in the dead. What was extraordinary, though, was the result for the vegetative David: -1.73. In the view of the average New Yorker or New Englander, the vegetative David was more dead [-1.73] than the version who was dead [-0.29].

...they ran a follow-up experiment which had two different descriptions of the dead David. One said he had simply passed away. The other directed the participant’s attention to the corpse. It read, “After being embalmed at the morgue, he was buried in the local cemetery. David now lies in a coffin underground.”...In this follow-up study participants were also asked to rate how religious they were.

Once again, the vegetative David was seen to have less mind than the David who had “passed away”. This was equally true, regardless of how religious a participant said he was. However, ratings of the dead David’s mind in the story in which his corpse was embalmed and buried varied with the participant’s religiosity. Irreligious participants gave the buried corpse about the same mental ratings as the vegetative patient (-1.51 and -1.64 respectively). Religious participants, however, continued to ascribe less mind to the irretrievably unconscious David than they did to his buried corpse (-1.57 and 0.59).

That those who believe in an afterlife ascribe mental acuity to the dead is hardly surprising. That those who do not are inclined to do so unless heavily prompted not to is curious indeed."

The study is "More dead than dead: Perceptions of persons in the persistent vegetative state":

Patients in persistent vegetative state (PVS) may be biologically alive, but these experiments indicate that people see PVS as a state curiously more dead than dead. Experiment 1 found that PVS patients were perceived to have less mental capacity than the dead. Experiment 2 explained this effect as an outgrowth of afterlife beliefs, and the tendency to focus on the bodies of PVS patients at the expense of their minds. Experiment 3 found that PVS is also perceived as “worse” than death: people deem early death better than being in PVS. These studies suggest that people perceive the minds of PVS patients as less valuable than those of the dead – ironically, this effect is especially robust for those high in religiosity.

Ed Yong points to another interesting study, the 2004 "The natural emergence of reasoning about the afterlife as a developmental regularity":

Participants were interviewed about the biological and psychological functioning of a dead agent. In Experiment 1, even 4- to 6-year-olds stated that biological processes ceased at death, although this trend was more apparent among 6- to 8-year-olds. In Experiment 2, 4- to 12-year-olds were asked about psychological functioning. The youngest children were equally likely to state that both cognitive and psychobiological states continued at death, whereas the oldest children were more likely to state that cognitive states continued. In Experiment 3, children and adults were asked about an array of psychological states. With the exception of preschoolers, who did not differentiate most of the psychological states, older children and adults were likely to attribute epistemic, emotional, and desire states to dead agents. These findings suggest that developmental mechanisms underlie intuitive accounts of dead agents' minds

Jach on Hacker News makes the obvious connection with cryonics; see also lukeprog's "Remind Physicalists They're Physicalists".

[link] Apostles' Creed = Tsuyoku Naritai???

-3 SilasBarta 23 August 2011 02:49PM

Background: Apostles' Creed, Tsuyoku Naritai

Related to: A Parable on Obsolete Ideologies

Just something I thought I might add to the annals of cases where someone tries to re-interpret an old religious text to mean something more acceptable to the modern ear, in contradiction to what most people (especially its contemporaries) think the texts mean.  And this is not some random person, but Gene Callahan, who makes sure you understand he holds a doctorate in philosophy, and pretty much makes a career out of defending this and anti-reductionist views in general.  Here's the post:

I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth...
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God...
And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life..."

If I say these words, what do I mean? I am asserting that I have some secret knowledge that others do not? Do I believe these things like I believe it will rain tonight?

No, I asserting that, by meditating on these symbols, I believe I will come to understand better what I now know only through a glass darkly.

I believe that I may understand.

I suggested that this is not what most people mean when they say the Creed, but (surprise) the comment was deleted.

(Yes I know Tsuyoku Naritai is not quite the same as Callahan's interpretation, but it's the closest short LW term for the general idea.)

Kill the mind-killer

-4 PhilGoetz 22 August 2011 06:46PM

The budget stalemate in the US Congress was caused entirely by blocks of voters and representatives that coalesced around strong sets of opinions that few people would have come up with on their own, and by political party leaders forcing representatives in their parties to toe the party line.  Politics isn't the mind killer.  Political parties are the mind-killer.

Parties are also notorious for obliterating information in elections, as well as for encouraging voters to vote sans information.  If you went to your polling place and saw a list of candidates, none of whom you'd heard of before, you might rightly refrain from voting and polluting the signal with your noise.  Knowing party affiliations makes people think they have enough information to vote.

For discussion:

  • What other disadvantages are provided by the existence of political parties?
  • Do political parties provide us with any advantages at all?
  • If so, do the benefits outweigh the disadvantages?
  • How might we go about disenfranchising political parties?

We want the freedom to form groups that promote political concerns.  But it would be possible to keep these groups at a greater distance from elected representatives.  Candidates for office could be forbidden from endorsing a particular party.  The Congress could be forbidden from basing any procedural rules on party affiliation.  Political parties could be forbidden from making large donations to election campaigns, or sponsoring advertising.  That's not so different from what we do today with religious groups, which are not much different from political parties.

Political parties are currently officially part of Congress' operation, even though they're not in the constitution.  There are all sorts of Congressional rules specifying how the parties interact, who gets to choose committee members, who runs the House and Senate floors, etc.  A party leader can punish a representative who doesn't toe the line with many incentives and disincentives.

Make that illegal.  Make persecuting a representative for party-based reasons have the same legal standing as persecuting a representative for religious reasons.

I will ignore comments saying "you're an intellectual dreamer", for the usual reasons.

Book of Mormon Discussion

-1 Arandur 01 August 2011 06:25PM

In this comment thread, I gave the following idea, on the topic of a method by which one might judge the Book of Mormon from a rationalist perspective:

Why not make this an online thing? Day-by-day, or perhaps week-by-week, post (somewhere, not necessarily on Less Wrong, so as not to clutter the site; though perhaps Less Wrong would actually be the ideal locale, due to familiarity, extant population, etc?) a chapter of the Book of Mormon and allow discussion of it, separately from the rest of the Book, using terms common to Rationalists.

I would appreciate feedback on this idea, for an admittedly selfish reason: I am trying to instigate in myself a Crisis of Faith. So, here are the questions I pose to you:

  • Would it be a Good Idea to subject the Book of Mormon, chapter by chapter, to a group rationalist judgement?
  • Would it be a Good Idea, given the above, to ask Less Wrong to host this discussion? On the one end, we want the maximum number of rationalists to input the maximum number of times, so we should host our discussion near the nexus of rationalist gathering. On the other end, if this discussion is judged to be frivolous and wasteful by the majority of active posters on Less Wrong, then we don't want to detract from the true meaning of the site.
Remember: This is a good chance to examine the best arguments of those who believe that the sky is green. If the sky is green, then you should want to believe that the sky is green, too!

Exclude the supernatural? My worldview is up for grabs.

24 r_claypool 25 June 2011 03:46AM


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.

List of literally false statements in the Bible

-13 Academian 20 May 2011 08:10AM

Jehova's Witnesses aim to interpret the Bible literally, which is in some sense admirable because that is the only way it can serve much to constrain one's anticipations about reality.  By contrast, if one aims to interpret a religious text only "metaphorically", then there are so many possible meanings that it does essentially nothing to constrain one's anticipations.

For example, when one accepts the best scientific knowledge about the origin of Earth, one believes that it was not in fact created in 6 days, and that the literal meaning of the English Bible is false in this case.  Christians who accept the true age of Earth are not usually bothered by this, and resort to a "metaphorical" interpretation wherein "days" are metaphors for longer periods.

But if you only believe that each statement in the Bible has some metaphorical interpretation which is true, it doesn't tell you much about the world at all.  The Bible asserts that God exists... but since we're only taking things metaphorically now, maybe God doesn't actually literally exist.  Maybe He's pretend.  Maybe there in fact is no God, but there is a rainforest, and God is a metaphor for the rainforest.  Or for the sun.  Who knows.  Since there is no way to tell which metaphor is the right one, believing that the Bible is "metaphorically true" basically tells you nothing.

Jehova's Witnesses seem to understand this, so they're not going there.  They're sticking to the literal Word of the Lord.  Which makes me interested:

What verses of the Bible can we cite that are false in their literal interpretation, according to accepted scientific or well-founded historical knowledge?

Thanks to anyone who contributes!

Rapture/Pet Insurance

1 Dan_Moore 19 May 2011 07:51PM


Providing assurance that pets will be provided for in the event of Rapture.

Having thought it over, I'm OK with the ethics of this service.

Religious Behaviorism

-1 PhilGoetz 08 May 2011 12:11AM

Willard Quine described, in his article "Ontological Relativity" (Journal of Philosophy 65(7):185-212), his doctrine of the indeterminability of translation.  Roughly, this says that words are meaningful (a collection of words emitted by an agent can help predict that agent's actions), but don't have meanings (any word taken by itself corresponds to nothing at all; there is no correspondence between the word "rabbit" and the Leporidae).

In Quine's words,

Seen according to the museum myth, the words and sentences of a language have their determinate meanings. To discover the meanings of the native's words we may have to observe his behavior, but still the meanings of the words are supposed to be determinate in the native's mind, his mental museum, even in cases where behavioral criteria are powerless to discover them for us. When on the other hand we recognize with Dewey that "meaning. . . is primarily a property of behavior," we recognize that there are no meanings, nor likenesses nor distinctions of meaning, beyond what are implicit in people's dispositions to overt behavior. For naturalism the question whether two expressions are alike or unlike in meaning has no determinate answer, known or unknown, except insofar as the answer is settled in principle by people's speech dispositions, known or unknown.

Quine got my hackles up by using the word "naturalism" when he meant "behaviorism", implicitly claiming that naturalistic science was synonymous (or would be, if he believed in synonyms) with behaviorism.  But I'll try to remain impartial.  (Quine's timing was curious; Chomsky had demolished behaviorist linguistics in 1959, nine years before Quine's article.)

Quine's basic idea is insightful.  To phrase it in non-behaviorist terms:  If all words are defined in terms of other words, how does meaning get into that web of words?  Can we unambiguously determine the correct mapping between words and meanings?

Quine's response was to deny that that is an empirical question.  He said you should not even talk about meaning; you can only observe behavior.  You must remain agnostic about anything inside the head.

But it is an empirical question.  With math, plus with some reasonable assumptions, you can prove that you can unambiguously determine the correct mapping even from the outside.  In a world where you can tell someone to think of a square, and then use functional magnetic resonance imaging and find a pattern of neurons lit up in a square on his visual cortex, it is difficult to agree with Quine that the word "square" has no meaning.

You may protest that I'm thinking there is a homunculus inside the mind looking at that square.  After all, Quine already knew that the image of a square would be imprinted in some way on the retina of a person looking at a square.  But I am not assuming there is a homunculus inside the brain.  I am just observing a re-presentation inside the brain.  We can continue the behaviorist philosophy of saying that words are ultimately defined by behavior.  But there is no particular reason to stop our analyses when we hit the skull.  Behaviors outside the skull are systematically reflected in physical changes inside the skull, and we can investigate them and reason about them.

The more I tried to figure out what Quine meant - sorry, Quine - the more it puzzled me.  I'm with him as far as asking whether meanings are ambiguous.  But Quine doesn't just say meaning is ambiguous.  He says "there are no meanings... beyond what are implicit in... behavior".  The more I read, the more it seemed Quine was insisting, not that meaning was ambiguous, but that mental states do not exist - or that they are taboo.  And this taboo centered on the skull.

That seemed to come from a religious frame.  So I stopped trying to think of a rational justification for Quine's position, and starting looking for an emotional one.  And I may have found it.

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