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Third Alternatives for Afterlife-ism

27 Eliezer_Yudkowsky 08 May 2007 07:41AM

One of the most commonly proposed Noble Lies is belief in an afterlife.  Surely, goes the argument, the crushing certainty of absolute annihilation in a few decades is too much for any human being to bear.  People need hope - if they don't believe in an afterlife, they won't be able to live. 

Surely this must be the strongest of all arguments for Noble Lies.  You can find Third Alternatives to many dilemmas, but can you find one to Death?

Well, did you close your eyes and think creatively about the problem for five minutes?  No excuses, please; just answer "Yes" or "No".  Did you, or did you not, brainstorm the problem for five minutes by the clock before giving up?

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The Third Alternative

55 Eliezer_Yudkowsky 06 May 2007 11:47PM

"Believing in Santa Claus gives children a sense of wonder and encourages them to behave well in hope of receiving presents.  If Santa-belief is destroyed by truth, the children will lose their sense of wonder and stop behaving nicely.  Therefore, even though Santa-belief is false-to-fact, it is a Noble Lie whose net benefit should be preserved for utilitarian reasons."

Classically, this is known as a false dilemma, the fallacy of the excluded middle, or the package-deal fallacy.  Even if we accept the underlying factual and moral premises of the above argument, it does not carry through.  Even supposing that the Santa policy (encourage children to believe in Santa Claus) is better than the null policy (do nothing), it does not follow that Santa-ism is the best of all possible alternatives.  Other policies could also supply children with a sense of wonder, such as taking them to watch a Space Shuttle launch or supplying them with science fiction novels.  Likewise (if I recall correctly), offering children bribes for good behavior encourages the children to behave well only when adults are watching, while praise without bribes leads to unconditional good behavior.

Noble Lies are generally package-deal fallacies; and the response to a package-deal fallacy is that if we really need the supposed gain, we can construct a Third Alternative for getting it.

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