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Stuff That Makes Stuff Happen

52 18 October 2012 10:49AM

Followup to: Causality: The Fabric of Real Things

Previous meditation:

"You say that a universe is a connected fabric of causes and effects. Well, that's a very Western viewpoint - that it's all about mechanistic, deterministic stuff. I agree that anything else is outside the realm of science, but it can still be real, you know. My cousin is psychic - if you draw a card from his deck of cards, he can tell you the name of your card before he looks at it. There's no mechanism for it - it's not a causal thing that scientists could study - he just does it. Same thing when I commune on a deep level with the entire universe in order to realize that my partner truly loves me. I agree that purely spiritual phenomena are outside the realm of causal processes that can be studied by experiments, but I don't agree that they can't be real."

Reply:

Fundamentally, a causal model is a way of factorizing our uncertainty about the universe.  One way of viewing a causal model is as a structure of deterministic functions plus uncorrelated sources of background uncertainty.

Let's use the Obesity-Exercise-Internet model (reminder: which is totally made up) as an example again:

$p(x_1, x_2, x_3) = p(x_1)p(x_2)p(x_3|x_1, x_2)$

We can also view this as a set of deterministic functions Fi, plus uncorrelated background sources of uncertainty Ui:

This says is that the value x3 - how much someone exercises - is a function of how obese they are (x1), how much time they spend on the Internet (x2), plus some other background factors U3 which don't correlate to anything else in the diagram, all of which collectively determine, when combined by the mechanism F3, how much time someone spends exercising.

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Rationality Outreach: A Parable

24 [deleted] 17 March 2011 01:10PM

This post grew out of a very long discussion with the New York Less Wrong meetup group.  The question was, should a group dedicated to rationality be explicitly atheist?  Or should it make an effort to be respectful to theists in order to make them feel welcome and spread rationality farther?  We argued for a long time.  The pro-atheism camp said that, given that religion is so overwhelmingly wrong on the merits, we shouldn't allow it any special pleading -- it's just as wrong as any other wrong belief, and we'd lose our value as a rationalist group if we began to put status above truth.  The anti-atheism group said that, while that may be true, it's going to doom us to be a group exclusively for eccentric nerds, and we need to develop broad appeal, even if that's hard and requires us to leave our comfort zone.

Things got abstract very fast; my take was that we need to get back to practicalities.  Different attitudes to religion have different effects on different types of people; we need to optimize for desired effects and accept what tradeoffs we must.  We can't appeal equally to everyone.  So I came up with a sort of typology.

The Four New Members

Annie

Annie is religious, and she's not particularly rational.  She's not great at following the thread of an argument; she can't really reason quantitatively; she shoots herself in the foot in her daily life (maybe she runs up a lot of debt because she can't keep track of her spending; maybe she has a pattern of bad relationships; etc.)  Going to church is really the least of her worries.  Annie is unlikely to come to us through the meetup group or LessWrong, but maybe she's one of our friends or family members, or maybe she read HP:MOR.

We don't want to tell Annie to give up religion.  In fact, it might be best not to say anything bad about religion at all in front of her; because she's probably prone to the halo effect, if we sound anti-religious, she'll assume everything else we have to say is stupid. Instead, we probably want to focus on helping her, very gently, to make her own life better by being aware of things like hyperbolic discounting, the planning fallacy, happy death spirals, etc. Dealing with Annie sounds like very hard work.  Because she just doesn't think in propositional arguments, you can't change her mind about things with a chain of propositions and a "QED."  We would need heavy-duty psychology to help her.
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Theists are wrong; is theism?

5 20 January 2011 12:18AM

Many folk here on LW take the simulation argument (in its more general forms) seriously. Many others take Singularitarianism1 seriously. Still others take Tegmark cosmology (and related big universe hypotheses) seriously. But then I see them proceed to self-describe as atheist (instead of omnitheist, theist, deist, having a predictive distribution over states of religious belief, et cetera), and many tend to be overtly dismissive of theism. Is this signalling cultural affiliation, an attempt to communicate a point estimate, or what?

I am especially confused that the theism/atheism debate is considered a closed question on Less Wrong. Eliezer's reformulations of the Problem of Evil in terms of Fun Theory provided a fresh look at theodicy, but I do not find those arguments conclusive. A look at Luke Muehlhauser's blog surprised me; the arguments against theism are just not nearly as convincing as I'd been brought up to believe2, nor nearly convincing enough to cause what I saw as massive overconfidence on the part of most atheists, aspiring rationalists or no.

It may be that theism is in the class of hypotheses that we have yet to develop a strong enough practice of rationality to handle, even if the hypothesis has non-negligible probability given our best understanding of the evidence. We are becoming adept at wielding Occam's razor, but it may be that we are still too foolhardy to wield Solomonoff's lightsaber Tegmark's Black Blade of Disaster without chopping off our own arm. The literature on cognitive biases gives us every reason to believe we are poorly equipped to reason about infinite cosmology, decision theory, the motives of superintelligences, or our place in the universe.

Due to these considerations, it is unclear if we should go ahead doing the equivalent of philosoraptorizing amidst these poorly asked questions so far outside the realm of science. This is not the sort of domain where one should tread if one is feeling insecure in one's sanity, and it is possible that no one should tread here. Human philosophers are probably not as good at philosophy as hypothetical Friendly AI philosophers (though we've seen in the cases of decision theory and utility functions that not everything can be left for the AI to solve). I don't want to stress your epistemology too much, since it's not like your immortal soul3 matters very much. Does it?

Added: By theism I do not mean the hypothesis that Jehovah created the universe. (Well, mostly.) I am talking about the possibility of agenty processes in general creating this universe, as opposed to impersonal math-like processes like cosmological natural selection.

Added: The answer to the question raised by the post is "Yes, theism is wrong, and we don't have good words for the thing that looks a lot like theism but has less unfortunate connotations, but we do know that calling it theism would be stupid." As to whether this universe gets most of its reality fluid from agenty creators... perhaps we will come back to that argument on a day with less distracting terminology on the table.

1 Of either the 'AI-go-FOOM' or 'someday we'll be able to do lots of brain emulations' variety.

2 I was never a theist, and only recently began to question some old assumptions about the likelihood of various Creators. This perhaps either lends credibility to my interest, or lends credibility to the idea that I'm insane.

Or the set of things that would have been translated to Archimedes by the Chronophone as the equivalent of an immortal soul (id est, whatever concept ends up being actually significant).

I'm Not Saying People Are Stupid

39 09 October 2009 04:23PM

Razib summarized my entire cognitive biases talk at the Singularity Summit 2009 as saying:  "Most people are stupid."

Hey!  That's a bit unfair.  I never said during my talk that most people are stupid.  In fact, I was very careful not to say, at any point, that people are stupid, because that's explicitly not what I believe.

I don't think that people who believe in single-world quantum mechanics are stupid.  John von Neumann believed in a collapse postulate.

I don't think that philosophers who believe in the "possibility" of zombies are stupid.  David Chalmers believes in zombies.

I don't even think that theists are stupid.  Robert Aumann believes in Orthodox Judaism.

And in the closing sentence of my talk on cognitive biases and existential risk, I did not say that humanity was devoting more resources to football than existential risk prevention because we were stupid.

There's an old joke that runs as follows:

A motorist is driving past a mental hospital when he gets a flat tire.
He goes out to change the tire, and sees that one of the patients is watching him through the fence.
Nervous, trying to work quickly, he jacks up the car, takes off the wheel, puts the lugnuts into the hubcap -
And steps on the hubcap, sending the lugnuts clattering into a storm drain.
The mental patient is still watching him through the fence.
The motorist desperately looks into the storm drain, but the lugnuts are gone.
The patient is still watching.
The motorist paces back and forth, trying to think of what to do -
And the patient says,
"Take one lugnut off each of the other tires, and you'll have three lugnuts on each."
"That's brilliant!" says the motorist.  "What's someone like you doing in an asylum?"
"I'm here because I'm crazy," says the patient, "not because I'm stupid."

Let Them Debate College Students

46 09 September 2009 06:15PM

(EDIT:  Woozle has an even better idea, which would apply to many debates in general if the true goal were seeking resolution and truth.)

Friends, Romans, non-Romans, lend me your ears.  I have for you a modest proposal, in this question of whether we should publicly debate creationists, or freeze them out as unworthy of debate.

My fellow humans, I have two misgivings about this notion that there should not be a debate.  My first misgiving is that - even though on this particular occasion scientific society is absolutely positively not wrong to dismiss creationism - this business of not having debates sounds like dangerous business to me.  Science is sometimes wrong, you know, even if it is not wrong this time, and debating is part of the recovery process.

And my second misgiving is that, like it or not, the creationists are on the radio, in the town halls, and of course on the Web, and they are already talking to large audiences; and the idea that there is not going to be a debate about this, may be slightly naive.

"But," you cry, "when prestigious scientists lower themselves so far as to debate creationists, afterward the creationists smugly advertise that prestigious scientists are debating them!"

Ah, but who says that prestigious scientists are required to debate creationists?

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Why I'm Staying On Bloggingheads.tv

25 07 September 2009 08:15PM

Recently, Sean Carroll, Carl Zimmer, and Phil Plait have all decided to stop appearing on BloggingHeads.TV (BHTV), and PZ Myers announced he would not appear on it in the future, after a disastrous decision to have creationist Michael Behe interviewed by the linguist and non-biologist John McWhorter, who failed to call Behe on his standard BS.

I'm hereby publicly announcing that I intend to stay on BloggingHeads.TV.

Why?  Two main reasons:

1)  Robert Wright publicly said that this was foolish, apologized for the poor editorial oversight that led to it, and says they're going to try never to do this again.  This looks sincere to me, and given that it's sincere, people really ought to be allowed more chance than this to recover from their mistakes.

2)  Bloggingheads.TV has given me a forum to debate accomodationist atheists who are insufficiently condemning of religion - for example my diavlog with Adam Frank, author of "The Constant Fire".  Adam Frank argues that, while of course we now know that God doesn't exist, nonetheless scientific wonder at the universe and its mysteries has a lot in common with the roots of religion.  And I said this was wishful thinking, historically ignorant of how religions really arose and propagated themselves, and a continuation of such theistic bad habits as thinking that things of which we are temporarily ignorant are "sacred mysteries".  And no one at BHTV complained that I was being too confrontational, or too anti-religious, or that it was unfair to have the diavlog be between two atheists.

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Atheism = Untheism + Antitheism

86 01 July 2009 02:19AM

One occasionally sees such remarks as, "What good does it do to go around being angry about the nonexistence of God?" (on the one hand) or "Babies are natural atheists" (on the other).  It seems to me that such remarks, and the rather silly discussions that get started around them, show that the concept "Atheism" is really made up of two distinct components, which one might call "untheism" and "antitheism".

A pure "untheist" would be someone who grew up in a society where the concept of God had simply never been invented - where writing was invented before agriculture, say, and the first plants and animals were domesticated by early scientists.  In this world, superstition never got past the hunter-gatherer stage - a world seemingly haunted by mostly amoral spirits - before coming into conflict with Science and getting slapped down.

Hunter-gatherer superstition isn't much like what we think of as "religion".  Early Westerners often derided it as not really being religion at all, and they were right, in my opinion.  In the hunter-gatherer stage the supernatural agents aren't particularly moral, or charged with enforcing any rules; they may be placated with ceremonies, but not worshipped.  But above all - they haven't yet split their epistemology.  Hunter-gatherer cultures don't have special rules for reasoning about "supernatural" entities, or indeed an explicit distinction between supernatural entities and natural ones; the thunder spirits are just out there in the world, as evidenced by lightning, and the rain dance is supposed to manipulate them - it may not be perfect but it's the best rain dance developed so far, there was that famous time when it worked...

If you could show hunter-gatherers a raindance that called on a different spirit and worked with perfect reliability, or, equivalently, a desalination plant, they'd probably chuck the old spirit right out the window.  Because there are no special rules for reasoning about it - nothing that denies the validity of the Elijah Test that the previous rain-dance just failed.  Faith is a post-agricultural concept.  Before you have chiefdoms where the priests are a branch of government, the gods aren't good, they don't enforce the chiefdom's rules, and there's no penalty for questioning them.

And so the Untheist culture, when it invents science, simply concludes in a very ordinary way that rain turns out to be caused by condensation in clouds rather than rain spirits; and at once they say "Oops" and chuck the old superstitions out the window; because they only got as far as superstitions, and not as far as anti-epistemology.

The Untheists don't know they're "atheists" because no one has ever told them what they're supposed to not believe in - nobody has invented a "high god" to be chief of the pantheon, let alone monolatry or monotheism.

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Special Status Needs Special Support

20 04 May 2009 10:59PM

I just recorded another BHTV with Adam Frank, though it's not out yet, and I had a thought that seems worth recording.  At a certain point in the dialogue, Adam Frank was praising the wisdom and poetry in religion.  I retorted, "Tolkien's got great poetry, and some parts that are wise and some that are unwise; but you don't see people wearing little rings around their neck in memory of Frodo."

(I don't remember whether this observation is original to me, so if anyone knows a prior source for this exact wording, please comment it!)

The general structure of this critique is that Frank wants to assign a special status to the Book of Job, but he gives a reason that would be equally applicable to The Lord of the Rings (good poetry and some wise parts).  So if those are his real reasons, he should feel just the same way about God and Gandalf.  Or if not that exact particular book, then some other work of poetic fiction that was always understood to be poetic fiction.

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This Didn't Have To Happen

22 23 April 2009 07:07PM

My girlfriend/SO's grandfather died last night, running on a treadmill when his heart gave out.

He wasn't signed up for cryonics, of course.  She tried to convince him, and I tried myself a little the one time I met her grandparents.

"This didn't have to happen.  Fucking religion."

That's what my girlfriend said.

I asked her if I could share that with you, and she said yes.

Just so that we're clear that all the wonderful emotional benefits of self-delusion come with a price, and the price isn't just to you.

How theism works

51 10 April 2009 04:16PM

There's a reason we can all agree on theism as a good source of examples of irrationality.

Let's divide the factors that lead to memetic success into two classes: those based on corresponding to evidence, and those detached from evidence. If we imagine a two-dimensional scattergram of memes rated against these two criteria, we can define a frontier of maximum success, along which any idea can only gain in one criterion by losing on the other. This doesn't imply that evidential and non-evidential success are opposed in general; just that whatever shape memespace has, it will have a convex hull that can be drawn across this border.

Religion is what you get when you push totally for non-evidential memetic success. All ties to reality are essentially cut. As a result, all the other dials can be pushed up to 11. God is not just wise, nice, and powerful - he is all knowing, omnibenificent, and omnipotent. Heaven and Hell are not just pleasant and unpleasant places you can spend a long time in - they are the very best possible and the very worst possible experiences, and for all eternity. Religion doesn't just make people better; it is the sole source of morality. And so on; because all of these things happen "offstage", there's no contradictory evidence when you turn the dials up, so of course they'll end up on the highest settings.

This freedom is theism's defining characteristic. Even the most stupid pseudoscience is to some extent about "evidence": people wouldn't believe in it if they didn't think they had evidence for it, though we now understand the cognitive biases and other effects that lead them to think so. That's why there are no homeopathic cures for amputation.

I agree with other commentators that the drug war is the other real world idea that I would attack here without fear of contradiction, but I would still say that drug prohibition is a model of sanity compared to theism. Theism really is the maddest thing you can believe without being considered mad.

Footnote: This was originally a comment on The uniquely awful example of theism, but I was encouraged to make a top-level post from it. I should point out that there are issues with my dividing line between "evidence-based" and "not evidence-based", since you could argue that mathematics is not evidence-based and nor is the belief that evidence is a good way to learn about the world; however, it should be clear that neither of these has the freedom that religion has to make up whatever will make people most likely to spread the word.

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