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Religion's Claim to be Non-Disprovable

124 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 04 August 2007 03:21AM

The earliest account I know of a scientific experiment is, ironically, the story of Elijah and the priests of Baal.

The people of Israel are wavering between Jehovah and Baal, so Elijah announces that he will conduct an experiment to settle it - quite a novel concept in those days!  The priests of Baal will place their bull on an altar, and Elijah will place Jehovah's bull on an altar, but neither will be allowed to start the fire; whichever God is real will call down fire on His sacrifice.  The priests of Baal serve as control group for Elijah - the same wooden fuel, the same bull, and the same priests making invocations, but to a false god.  Then Elijah pours water on his altar - ruining the experimental symmetry, but this was back in the early days - to signify deliberate acceptance of the burden of proof, like needing a 0.05 significance level.  The fire comes down on Elijah's altar, which is the experimental observation. The watching people of Israel shout "The Lord is God!" - peer review.

And then the people haul the 450 priests of Baal down to the river Kishon and slit their throats.  This is stern, but necessary.  You must firmly discard the falsified hypothesis, and do so swiftly, before it can generate excuses to protect itself.  If the priests of Baal are allowed to survive, they will start babbling about how religion is a separate magisterium which can be neither proven nor disproven.

Back in the old days, people actually believed their religions instead of just believing in them.  The biblical archaeologists who went in search of Noah's Ark did not think they were wasting their time; they anticipated they might become famous.  Only after failing to find confirming evidence - and finding disconfirming evidence in its place - did religionists execute what William Bartley called the retreat to commitment, "I believe because I believe."

Back in the old days, there was no concept of religion being a separate magisterium.  The Old Testament is a stream-of-consciousness culture dump: history, law, moral parables, and yes, models of how the universe works.  In not one single passage of the Old Testament will you find anyone talking about a transcendent wonder at the complexity of the universe.  But you will find plenty of scientific claims, like the universe being created in six days (which is a metaphor for the Big Bang), or rabbits chewing their cud.  (Which is a metaphor for...)

Back in the old days, saying the local religion "could not be proven" would have gotten you burned at the stake.  One of the core beliefs of Orthodox Judaism is that God appeared at Mount Sinai and said in a thundering voice, "Yeah, it's all true."  From a Bayesian perspective that's some darned unambiguous evidence of a superhumanly powerful entity.  (Albeit it doesn't prove that the entity is God per se, or that the entity is benevolent - it could be alien teenagers.)  The vast majority of religions in human history - excepting only those invented extremely recently - tell stories of events that would constitute completely unmistakable evidence if they'd actually happened.  The orthogonality of religion and factual questions is a recent and strictly Western concept.  The people who wrote the original scriptures didn't even know the difference.

The Roman Empire inherited philosophy from the ancient Greeks; imposed law and order within its provinces; kept bureaucratic records; and enforced religious tolerance.  The New Testament, created during the time of the Roman Empire, bears some traces of modernity as a result. You couldn't invent a story about God completely obliterating the city of Rome (a la Sodom and Gomorrah), because the Roman historians would call you on it, and you couldn't just stone them.

In contrast, the people who invented the Old Testament stories could make up pretty much anything they liked.  Early Egyptologists were genuinely shocked to find no trace whatsoever of Hebrew tribes having ever been in Egypt - they weren't expecting to find a record of the Ten Plagues, but they expected to find something. As it turned out, they did find something.  They found out that, during the supposed time of the Exodus, Egypt ruled much of Canaan.  That's one huge historical error, but if there are no libraries, nobody can call you on it.

The Roman Empire did have libraries.  Thus, the New Testament doesn't claim big, showy, large-scale geopolitical miracles as the Old Testament routinely did.  Instead the New Testament claims smaller miracles which nonetheless fit into the same framework of evidence.  A boy falls down and froths at the mouth; the cause is an unclean spirit; an unclean spirit could reasonably be expected to flee from a true prophet, but not to flee from a charlatan; Jesus casts out the unclean spirit; therefore Jesus is a true prophet and not a charlatan. This is perfectly ordinary Bayesian reasoning, if you grant the basic premise that epilepsy is caused by demons (and that the end of an epileptic fit proves the demon fled).

Not only did religion used to make claims about factual and scientific matters, religion used to make claims about everything. Religion laid down a code of law - before legislative bodies; religion laid down history - before historians and archaeologists; religion laid down the sexual morals - before Women's Lib; religion described the forms of government - before constitutions; and religion answered scientific questions from biological taxonomy to the formation of stars.  The Old Testament doesn't talk about a sense of wonder at the complexity of the universe - it was busy laying down the death penalty for women who wore men's clothing, which was solid and satisfying religious content of that era.  The modern concept of religion as purely ethical derives from every other area having been taken over by better institutions.  Ethics is what's left.

Or rather, people think ethics is what's left.  Take a culture dump from 2,500 years ago.  Over time, humanity will progress immensely, and pieces of the ancient culture dump will become ever more glaringly obsolete.  Ethics has not been immune to human progress - for example, we now frown upon such Bible-approved practices as keeping slaves.  Why do people think that ethics is still fair game?

Intrinsically, there's nothing small about the ethical problem with slaughtering thousands of innocent first-born male children to convince an unelected Pharaoh to release slaves who logically could have been teleported out of the country.  It should be more glaring than the comparatively trivial scientific error of saying that grasshoppers have four legs.  And yet, if you say the Earth is flat, people will look at you like you're crazy.  But if you say the Bible is your source of ethics, women will not slap you.  Most people's concept of rationality is determined by what they think they can get away with; they think they can get away with endorsing Bible ethics; and so it only requires a manageable effort of self-deception for them to overlook the Bible's moral problems.  Everyone has agreed not to notice the elephant in the living room, and this state of affairs can sustain itself for a time.

Maybe someday, humanity will advance further, and anyone who endorses the Bible as a source of ethics will be treated the same way as Trent Lott endorsing Strom Thurmond's presidential campaign.  And then it will be said that religion's "true core" has always been genealogy or something.

The idea that religion is a separate magisterium which cannot be proven or disproven is a Big Lie - a lie which is repeated over and over again, so that people will say it without thinking; yet which is, on critical examination, simply false.  It is a wild distortion of how religion happened historically, of how all scriptures present their beliefs, of what children are told to persuade them, and of what the majority of religious people on Earth still believe. You have to admire its sheer brazenness, on a par with Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia.  The prosecutor whips out the bloody axe, and the defendant, momentarily shocked, thinks quickly and says:  "But you can't disprove my innocence by mere evidence - it's a separate magisterium!"

And if that doesn't work, grab a piece of paper and scribble yourself a Get-Out-of-Jail-Free card.

Comments (311)

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Comment author: Robin_Hanson2 04 August 2007 04:04:07AM 27 points [-]

Very well written, as usual. But many other modern institutions have analogous ancient institutions that look rather silly by modern standards. Consider trial by combat in law, or ancient scholastic obsessions with the "true" meaning of ancient texts. If lawyers and academics can disavow these ancient practices, while still embracing a true essence of law or academia, why can't religious folks disavow ancient religious practice in favor of some true essence that makes sense in modern terms?

Comment author: sark 27 February 2012 06:55:16PM *  2 points [-]

Perhaps not what most religious folks would call its 'essence' (part of the problem that they won't admit this really) but certain religion-based social norms which are still relevant in today's world.

Comment author: [deleted] 27 February 2012 07:29:22PM 4 points [-]

I once read an article to the effect that, even among non-religious people, people who grew up in traditionally predominantly Catholic areas are more likely to forgive minor rule violations, people who grew up in traditionally predominantly Calvinist areas are more likely to value economic success a lot, etc.

Comment author: pnrjulius 19 May 2012 05:05:21AM 3 points [-]

But we can clearly identify what we mean by the "core" of law (organizing rules for society) and the "core" of academia (collective pursuit of knowledge). No one seems able to agree what the "core" of religion is (not questioning authority?).

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 04 August 2007 04:43:56AM 65 points [-]

1) Because they'll say with their lips, "Oh, well, I just want the true essence" and then go on denying homosexuals the right to marry because it's the word of God.

2) What's left, exactly?

3) Nazism would have been unexceptional if it had been an ancient religion instead of a modern government. Why can't modern Nazis disavow ancient Nazi practice in favor of some true essence that makes sense in modern terms?

4) Why not start your search for the true essence in Lord of the Rings, which dominates the Bible both ethically and aesthetically? Or Harry Potter? Or Oh My Goddess?

And above all,

5) Because it's a fantastically elaborate way of refusing to admit you were wrong.

Comment author: Will_Newsome 12 August 2010 04:10:30AM *  53 points [-]

4) Why not start your search for the true essence in [....] Harry Potter?


Comment author: AlexM 16 July 2011 08:12:20PM *  15 points [-]

Why can't modern Nazis disavow ancient Nazi practice in favor of some true essence that makes sense in modern terms?

One can argue that holocaust denial is an attempt to bring nazism closer to modern ethical values. Real, authentic Nazis were proud of their achievement and would be outraged by thought that their successors would call them a lie.

Why not start your search for the true essence in Lord of the Rings

Some people do :-P

Comment author: TraderJoe 30 April 2012 11:41:24AM *  0 points [-]

Why not start your search for the true essence in Lord of the Rings, which dominates the Bible both ethically and aesthetically? Or Harry Potter? Or Oh My Goddess?

Because we have Atlas Shrugged :)

Comment author: TGGP3 04 August 2007 06:05:23AM 1 point [-]

The difference is that ethics are not falsifiable. This leads me to believe there are no ethical truths.

Comment author: DanielLC 05 September 2010 07:05:39PM -2 points [-]

If there are no ethical truths, there's nothing wrong with assuming that there are, so you might as well assume there are.

Comment author: ata 05 September 2010 07:14:08PM *  24 points [-]

I think you're mistakenly equivocating between "wrong with" referring to morality and rational justification. If there are no moral truths, then of course it's not immoral to believe there are moral truths, but it's not epistemically rational, which is the relevant point among people who care about epistemic rationality.

Comment author: DanielLC 28 June 2011 10:11:01PM -2 points [-]

It's relevant to what they care about, but what does it matter if their desires are fulfilled?

Comment author: DanielLC 28 June 2011 10:15:03PM 1 point [-]

The lack of ethics are also not falsifiable. By the same logic, you could say that there must be ethical truths.

Why must everything that exists be falsifiable? If there was a particle that didn't react to any of the four forces, its existence would be unfalsifiable. Is that any reason for it to not exist? If you had two non-interacting universe, by your logic each could say that the other doesn't exist. Certainly two universes isn't the same as no universes.

Comment author: pnrjulius 19 May 2012 05:07:24AM 3 points [-]

Although, each wouldn't know about the other... so maybe they would be justified in inferring that the other doesn't exist.

(After all, invisible fairies could be hiding in your attic right now, provided they are invisible, inaudible, massless, permeable to all substances...)

Comment author: DanielLC 19 May 2012 06:20:18AM 1 point [-]

Although, each wouldn't know about the other... so maybe they would be justified in inferring that the other doesn't exist.

Say what you will about them being justified. They're still wrong.

Comment author: Omkar 04 August 2007 06:40:31AM 5 points [-]

To Robin: I think the central problem is that religion makes claims, not arguments, and then changes its claims when they become untenable. But since claims are all religion has got, it doesn't really have an essence to keep constant during this process. Perhaps one could argue that the method of making claims is what the essence is, like the scholarly or lawyerly method/mentality. This is hard for me to swallow, though, since the religious method of claiming is just "because God says so," which doesn't strike me as a permissible essence. Similarly, religious people like to talk about "faith" as the essence, but this is circular.

Comment author: Hopefully_Anonymous2 04 August 2007 07:00:30AM 2 points [-]

Eliezer, it's a good point, and hopefully writings like these will get the skeptic community (much larger than the reduce existential risk community) buzzing about "bayesian reasoning" as the proper contrast to religion. But it seems to me that religion has already been slayed many, many times by public intellectuals. The cutting edge areas to address, the "hard" areas, are things like universal adult enfranchisement to select policy makers and juries as finders of fact.

Comment author: pnrjulius 19 May 2012 05:08:34AM 3 points [-]

We have slain religion in the minds of intellectuals. But we have not slain it in the minds of ordinary people, and for better or worse ordinary people have a lot of power in modern democratic societies. So it seems to me rather imperative to find ways to improve the rationality of ordinary folk, and one very good start would be getting rid of religion.

Comment author: Riley_Gutzeit 04 August 2007 02:38:22PM 6 points [-]

Eliezer: Those who espouse any separate magisteria seem to me to consistently espouse only two: science and religion. Other scientific questions, even contentious, fervently-believed ones that impact morality and public policy, are subject to the normal rules of science. Yahweh's existence gets a magisterium, but global warming, aptitude equality among races and sexes, and the extent of neural activity in fetuses do not. At least, nobody admits they do. Do you believe any secular beliefs are protected by NOMA, perhaps by another name? Is there a generalized lesson that secular opponents of cognitive bias should learn from this, beyond the universal application of science?

Comment author: michael_vassar3 04 August 2007 02:39:18PM 21 points [-]

From a practical perspective, it seems to me that we need religion to bolster the arrogance of the non-religious. It seems a-priori impossible that I could be right when my opinions go strongly against social consensus. I am thus tempted towards a weak form of philosophical majoritarianism http://www.overcomingbias.com/2007/03/on_majoritarian.html but then I remember religion and it sets me back on the right track.

Comment author: pnrjulius 19 May 2012 05:11:17AM 3 points [-]

\begin{tautology} On average, most people will not be better than average. \end{tautology}

If we want to improve the world's knowledge, we need to be willing to deviate from norms. So yes, perhaps having a few atrociously bad but widely-believed ideas (like religion) is helpful in reminding us of this. (Another way would be to look at ancient beliefs that are obviously wrong, like geocentrism and astrology.)

Comment author: Robin_Hanson2 04 August 2007 03:48:04PM 22 points [-]

Eliezer, imagine you knew two people who both did embarrassing stupid things when they were young, and that one person you excused with "boys will be boys" or "the folly of youth", while the other you told to anyone that would listen that you would never trust or associate with a person who did such a terrible thing. This would seem to be playing favorites, unless perhaps the difference is that one person repented of their youthful acts while the other did not.

Similarly, you seem to be playing favorites in allowing lawyers and academics to disavow their silly ancient practices, while insisting that religious folks today take responsibility for ancient foolish religious claims. Sure your criticism sticks to those who refuse to disavow those ancient claims, but I think we should treat differently those, like Unitarians, who to do so disavow.

My main problem is that I find it hard to understand what such people are in fact claiming. At least I understood the ancient foolish claims, mostly.

Comment author: pnrjulius 19 May 2012 05:11:59AM 1 point [-]

Yeah, what does it mean to be Unitarian, really? Are they even religious anymore?

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 04 August 2007 04:40:36PM 16 points [-]

Robin, I would indeed put someone who called themselves a Unitarian in a different class from someone who called themselves a Zoroastrian or Christian. It's still a big blatant mistake, but so long as the person is willing to take strict personal responsibility for their own moral judgments, it's a less urgent matter.

You can call yourself a scientist and disavow association with Newton by standing up and saying, "Newton was wrong, and I know better, because I come from a superior culture." But then you certainly cannot call yourself a Newtonian. Likewise you cannot call yourself a "flat-Earther" and disavow association with the idea that the Earth is flat because you are pursuing the "true essence" of flat-Earthism. You could repudiate all scripture and still call yourself spiritual, but there would still have to be that moment of repudiation, of admitting you were wrong.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 04 August 2007 05:02:44PM 18 points [-]

Actually, Robin, come to think of it, you may be executing an inappropriate shift between levels of abstraction.

Science is not the same as a particular scientific theory. Any particular scientific theory is subject to the Bayes-law, the rules of evidence, and may be destroyed by contrary evidence; any particular scientific theory is disprovable. This is what people mean when they say "Science is falsifiable." They're referring to every particular instance of science, not the abstract category Science. Red is a color, blood is red, blood is not a color.

When someone says "I am a scientist", they (should) mean that they identify with the rules of evidence, not with any particular theory. You can disavow past specific scientific theories, and still remain a scientist, so long as you avow the rules of evidence. A lawyer can disavow trial by combat, and still avow justice, but then they cannot call themselves a medievalist.

Similarly, when I talk about "religion's claim to be non-disprovable" I mean the claim that specific religions like Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Unitarianism are non-disprovable.

What is the category that includes both the Bhagavad-Gita and the Twelve Virtues of Rationality? I'm not sure there is one. But it certainly isn't the category "religion". Atheism is not a religion. They are both answers, perhaps, albeit answers to different questions using different methods. Maybe the superspace should be called "answerism". Perhaps you could reject Christianity but try to answer the same sort of questions Christianity did using a completely different method, i.e., "How old is the universe?" = "Six thousand years, because it sounds cool" -> "13 billion years, because we went out and looked using telescopes", while still legitimately calling yourself an "answerist". But you would then have rejected religion as a general method of answering; permitting science, democracy, and personal acceptance of responsibility for moral arguments, to answer various questions formerly answered by scripture.

Comment author: smijer 08 February 2012 01:09:20AM 1 point [-]

I am a Unitarian Universalist, and I am confused.

I don't make a habit of claiming UUism to be non-disprovable, but now that I think about it... The seven principles affirmed by the UU association are statements of values, not empirical claims. I have a hard time thinking of anything UUs generally hold to in terms of doctrine at all... So, what's to disprove?

We don't even have <em>ethics</em> in common. Only values, and the most controversial subject of those values is "the interdependent web of all existence", which we agree to "respect". Even there, I doubt many of us would argue against evidence that there are bits of existence that are not interdependent.

I have a lot of other quibbles with the article. Somehow this one slipped past my radar for a long time. On the principle that the rationalist fixes their opponents arguments for them, it doesn't seem to come to a high standard. It almost seems to treat arguments as soldiers. (I mean rabbits chewing cud? It's not just easy to see that this type of language conveys imagery: if you've ever seen a, rabbit, you know exactly what imagery it is conveying)...

On other boards, I've seen arguments treated very much like soldiers. It's one reason I don't visit Jerry Coyne's site any longer. Science cannot disprove historical miracles, for instance. Yes, science can prove dead people cannot rise again... but it cannot prove that an agent with the power to suspend or violate the laws of nature could not perform the trick.

So, I argue against the claim that acceptance of such a belief, of itself, is a rejection of science. For very narrow cases, there really is a separation between the "magesteria". One of the things I enjoy about less-wrong is that the focus is moved away from whether belief is "scientific" or not and onto the question of whether it is "true" or not. While the resurrection almost certainly isn't true, it is almost as certainly true, on Bayesian grounds, that belief in resurrection as a function of the power of a super-natural God is not a rejection of science. On Coyne's board (and some other "anti-accommodationist" boards), the first truth is embraced, and the second is an enemy soldier.

Comment author: MixedNuts 08 February 2012 01:52:08AM 10 points [-]

I have a hard time thinking of anything UUs generally hold to in terms of doctrine at all

Well, UU is definitely on the "accommodationist" side, which means that, when asked "Are there supernatural things?", it answers "Shut up, debate is intolerance". But Unitarians' behavior does reveal a probability estimate - for example, someone praying for a disease to be cured is certainly putting a non-negligible probability mass on "There are things that listen to me pray and can cure disease". There are no Official Unitarian Beliefs, but there are beliefs of individual Unitarians and they can be stupid but protected by "Don't tell me this is stupid or you are evil and intolerant"-type memes. In particular, "Belief in the supernatural is not laughably wrong" is a claim made by many Unitarians.

rabbits chewing cud

Okay, chewing pellets could plausibly be lumped in with chewing one's cud, though I am Not Happy about things becoming "imagery" the second they're literally false.

Yes, science can prove dead people cannot rise again... but it cannot prove that an agent with the power to suspend or violate the laws of nature could not perform the trick.

Well, obviously such an agent could. But science can and does prove that such agents just don't happen. We've spent the last three thousand years looking at increasingly robust laws of the universe, and we found out that the universe loves locality and referential-independence and hates special exceptions. We've spent the last thousand years looking at accounts of miracles and never found one that held water. At some point you just reach probabilities lower than "There is a pony behind my sofa, but it teleports away whenever you try to look at it, by sheer coincidence".

To accept most scientific claims ("Schrödinger's equation predicts...") and also accept a claim that contradicts their generalization ("And lo, Jesus did violate conservation of energy") requires rejecting the claim "Induction works", which is sort of the very core of science.

Comment author: smijer 08 February 2012 02:07:08AM 1 point [-]

Sorry - I still haven't figured out why standard html doesn't work here, or how to do blockquotes...

  • "Well, UU is definitely on the 'accommodationist' side," Generally, yes

-"which means that, when asked 'Are there supernatural things?', it answers 'Shut up, debate is intolerance'." I'm pretty sure it doesn't mean that. I fall closer to the accommodationist side, and I gladly answer, "no, probably not" to that question.

-"Okay, chewing pellets could plausibly be lumped in with chewing one's cud, though I am Not Happy about things becoming "imagery" the second they're literally false." I'm not a big fan of Christian apologetics - especially of the sort that like to claim that there are no errors in the Bible, but to hold that "rabbits chew their cud" is an example of a falsehood in the Bible requires you assume that the phrase so translated literally means rumination of partially digested material in exactly the way that ruminant species do. This is a terrible assumption, since the language belonged to people who did not understand rumination: why would they have a term term in their vocabulary that literally describes a process they didn't understand?

There are many examples of real errors in the Bible... it just looks dumb to cite something as an error based solely on an assumption that ancient languages will somehow embed modern classification systems.

-"But science can and does prove that such agents just don't happen." To fix your argument: science proves that such agents don't arise under ordinary physical law. Any number of elements of rational thought make the existence of such an agent improbable, but that doesn't make it specifically anti-scientific to believe in such an agent.

-"requires rejecting the claim 'Induction works'," Nonsense - it merely requires asserting that induction can fail outside the boundaries for which it should apply (in the case of science, outside the boundaries of natural law).

Comment author: Alejandro1 08 February 2012 02:24:41AM 3 points [-]

Sorry - I still haven't figured out why standard html doesn't work here, or how to do blockquotes...

When you write a comment, at the bottom right of the text box there is a "Help" button that tells you how to to blockquotes, italics, bold, links, and bullet points.

Comment author: smijer 08 February 2012 02:35:59AM 1 point [-]

Thank you.

Comment author: Veldurak 27 June 2012 04:23:58PM 0 points [-]

-"But science can and does prove that such agents just don't happen." To fix your argument: science proves that such agents don't arise under ordinary physical law. Any number of elements of rational thought make the existence of such an agent improbable, but that doesn't make it specifically anti-scientific to believe in such an agent.

If you step outside ordinary physical law, you lose your firm objective ground to stand on. What's the point of considering the question when the answer is "You can't disprove me because God is magical and can do anything." ? Unless there's firm evidence towards those events happening (which consistently have been disproven historically), then why waste your time?

Comment author: smijer 01 July 2012 03:19:35AM 0 points [-]

Personally, it isn't something I waste my time on... as I mentioned earlier - it is still a mistake, in terms of strict probability, to believe that there have been miracles from God. It just isn't a specifically anti-scientific mistake. The act of making it is not evidence that a person is unscientific - merely that they are not reasoning well.

Comment author: [deleted] 08 February 2012 11:32:26AM 3 points [-]

someone praying for a disease to be cured is certainly putting a non-negligible probability mass on "There are things that listen to me pray and can cure disease".

Note that P(the effectiveness of prayer is greater than zero | there is no god) > P(the effectiveness of prayer is greater than that of a placebo | there is no god).

Comment author: MixedNuts 10 February 2012 11:38:47AM 1 point [-]

I did think of that, but praying for someone else's disease to be cured, without telling them, certainly qualifies.

Comment author: Bugmaster 08 February 2012 02:26:28AM 0 points [-]

...it is almost as certainly true, on Bayesian grounds, that belief in resurrection as a function of the power of a super-natural God is not a rejection of science.

I believe that it is. Either an incredibly powerful agent such as the one described in the Bible exists and acts upon the world, or he doesn't. If he exists, and if he pops in from time to time to perform miracles, then we should see some evidence of him doing that. If we did, then science as we know it would not work, because we'd have no predictable natural laws against which to run our tests. Science does appear to work, however, which means that either gods do not exist, or they do exist but aren't actually doing anything, which is no better than not existing at all.

Comment author: smijer 08 February 2012 02:35:04AM *  0 points [-]

Either an incredibly powerful agent such as the one described in the Bible exists and acts upon the world, or he doesn't. If he exists, and if he pops in from time to time to perform miracles,

Not "time to time" - I was addressing the specific claim of one resurrection event in history. We might not expect to have any evidence of such an event preserved at all, and certainly none better than the type of documentary evidence adduced to it.

then we should see some evidence of him doing that.

Agreed - however, there is a correllation between the frequency and mode of such interventions and the amount and quality of evidence we should expect. It doesn't make sense to think this is happening at all, but it isn't anti-scientific to believe that it has and maybe does happen in subtle ways and/or at rare times.

Comment author: Strange7 08 February 2012 02:46:09AM 0 points [-]

That sort of argument implies some unpleasant things about the agent in question's willingness to render assistance to those who claim to serve it, and further claim to receive various favors in return for such service.

Comment author: smijer 08 February 2012 02:47:39AM 0 points [-]

Indeed it may.

Comment author: Bugmaster 08 February 2012 03:55:09AM 1 point [-]

Not "time to time" - I was addressing the specific claim of one resurrection event in history.

Sure, it's possible that the Resurrection did occur; believing in its mere possibility is not, in itself, unscientific. But I would argue that if science works, then you'd be forced to conclude that the Resurrection most likely did not occur, based on the evidence available to you. Similarly, you would be forced to conclude that intelligent aliens most likely never visited the Earth -- not even that one time -- while still acknowledging that it's entirely possible that they did.

It doesn't make sense to think this is happening at all, but it isn't anti-scientific to believe that it has and maybe does happen in subtle ways and/or at rare times.

Once again, it's a matter of probabilities. If these effects are so subtle and/or rare as to be undetectable, then we'd conclude that such effects most probably do not occur. This is different from saying that they definitely do not occur, or that they cannot occur in principle, etc.

Comment author: [deleted] 08 February 2012 11:24:57AM *  2 points [-]

If he exists, and if he pops in from time to time to perform miracles, then we should see some evidence of him doing that.

Well, unless from time to time means “once every couple of millennia”... (Though Occam's razor says you should assign a very small prior to that.)

Comment author: Bugmaster 08 February 2012 11:29:30PM 0 points [-]

Right. As the miracle events become more and more rare, our probability estimate of their existence becomes lower and lower -- in the absence of some direct evidence, that is. This is why we believe in meteorite impacts, but not in resurrections.

Comment author: Richard_Hollerith 04 August 2007 06:39:50PM 8 points [-]

I'm going to focus on one word in your comment: "democracy".

So, you would permit "democracy ... to answer various questions formerly answered by scripture"?

It makes me sad to learn that. I am strongly opposed to the idea that counting votes is a good way of arriving at ordinary or moral truth (unless perhaps one is very picky about whose vote counts).

Of course, that pernicious idea --Majority Rule-- is so prevalent in our world that I would not bother to voice my objection except that you are the leader of a project that if successful will impose on the entire future light cone decisions that will have the same unbendable and irreversible character that physical law now has. This property of irreversibility is quite unique to your project. (There are other project that would impose irreversible conditions, namely sterilization of the biosphere, if they fail or go wrong, but yours is the only one I know of that would do so if you succeed.)

What makes my agony and my sadness particularly acute is the knowledge that up to the age 19 or so, you wrote about ultimate ends in ways I found completely benign and lovable. I refer of course to documents like TMOLFAQ, which apparently you are now so ashamed of that you have removed it from the web.

Oh how sad it made me to read your Collective Extrapolated Volition document, with its horror of disenfranchisement, plus your speculations about extending the franchise to non-human primates, as if the very contingent, accidental, particular political religion of our times were a universal law of the universe that no rational agent with sufficient time to grow wise could object to!

Oh yeah: nice series of blog entries. Thanks for writing. And know that I know that it is only because your commitment to unambiguous publication of your beliefs that it is possible for me to snipe at you in this way.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 04 August 2007 07:19:57PM 13 points [-]

Hollerith, read the Old Testament. Scripture used to make the laws. Not just when to bring sacrifices, but the death penalty for kidnapping, how much to pay a man for raping his daughter, that sort of thing. That's the function I was referring to as being taken over by "democracy", which, yes, we all know isn't perfect, but it's a hell of a lot better than scripture. If you assumed I meant that democracy could dictate morality, that just goes to show how unconsciously people accept the Big Lie of the Bible being an ethical philosophy.

Comment author: Hopefully_Anonymous2 04 August 2007 07:23:01PM 0 points [-]

Richard, I share your concerns, as expressed in past posts to this blog. Great to see someone else (non-anonymously?) expressing them. I have a longer response on my anonymous blog.

Comment author: Richard_Hollerith 04 August 2007 07:36:18PM 1 point [-]

I was riffing off of a few words you wrote here to make a point about CEV, about which I have strong feelings. I'll restrict my future comments about CEV and AI to more appropiate forums.

(Are there adults who consider themselves qualified to comment here who have not read the Old Testament as part of their basic education?)

Comment author: Richard_Hollerith 04 August 2007 07:39:17PM 0 points [-]

HA slipped in. HA: I will read your blog with great relish.

Comment author: ed 05 August 2007 02:58:26AM 1 point [-]

>The earliest account I know of a scientific experiment is, ironically, the story of Elijah and the priests of Baal.

What do you mean by "I know of". Do you mean an account that you have evidence for? If yes, what evidence is that? Or do you mean the earliest recorded? Surely there were early ones recorded. Korach and the 250 men?

Comment author: bigjeff5 31 January 2011 07:42:39PM 0 points [-]

The experiment is recorded in the Bible.

Do words written on paper no longer count? Obviously, there are problems with the experiment itself, and a whole lot of reasons not to trust the results, but the fact is it was recorded as history by the Hebrews about 3,000-4,000 years ago.

Comment author: ndm25 05 August 2011 03:20:55PM 1 point [-]

Words written on paper count very well when we have a decent reason to expect that they are not utterly fabricated. The opposite is true in this case. Unless you claim this particular experiment is somehow distinct from all the other parts of the Bible which never happened.

Comment author: bigjeff5 04 October 2011 08:48:56PM 3 points [-]

Earliest "account".

Since the most popular book in the world contains this account, I'd say questioning its existence is pretty stupid.

The test given in the account that Elijah supposedly performed would, with only slight tweaking*, be a completely valid scientific experiment.

Now, whether the events in the account actually happened is an entirely different question (and I'd agree with you there). But you'd be foolish to say the account itself doesn't exist, which is what you and ed have thus far said. Words on paper are extremely strong evidence the account exists (it exists on the paper). The fact that I'm talking about the account is pretty strong evidence that the account exists as well (it exists in my mind).

*As has been noted by others, he went over-board when setting up his side of the experiment. To get the most relevant results he should have kept both altars exactly the same instead of dousing his lambs with water. Of course, he was doing science accidentally, so he didn't know better.

Comment author: bigjeff5 04 October 2011 10:16:31PM 1 point [-]

Was the downvote because I used the word stupid, or does someone actually believe the bible does not contain an account of Elijah performing an experiment?

If the former, don't be so sensitive, I didn't call anybody stupid, I was just pointing out the absurd notion that the account does not exist.

If the latter, well, I really can't help you. The existence of the account is an absurdly easily provable fact. I certainly don't believe the events described in the account ever took place, however.

Comment author: gjm 04 October 2011 10:31:34PM 3 points [-]

No one's claiming that the bible doesn't contain an account of Elijah performing an experiment. I think you've misinterpreted ed (who, by "an account that you have evidence for", surely meant "an account whose truth you have evidence for" rather than "an account whose existence you have evidence for") and ndm25 (I'd try to pinpoint what you've misinterpreted, except that I can't find anything in what he wrote that looks even slightly like a claim that the account in question doesn't exist).

Comment author: bigjeff5 04 October 2011 10:36:34PM *  1 point [-]

Which is the fundamental misunderstanding I was attempting to point out.

The original statement was that the bible contains an account of Elijah performing an experiment. This is absolutely true.

The original statement had nothing to do with whether or not Elijah actually performed any such experiment, and in fact the truth of the account itself was absolutely irrelevant to the discussion, but that's what ed and ndm25 jumped on.

It's silly.

Edit to point out that by "original statement" I mean the statement ed was responding to.

Comment author: gjm 04 October 2011 11:55:02PM 1 point [-]

You accused both ed and ndm25 of "say[ing] the account itself doesn't exist". That is flatly false: neither of them has either said or implied any such thing.

ed's original point was not that the truth of the account is important. It was that (in his opinion) the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal isn't a good candidate for "earliest recorded scientific experiment" because depending on your criteria either it's a problem that it probably didn't happen or it's a problem that there are earlier claims, of which ed gave an example that's also from the Bible.

I think that's a pretty nitpicky and unhelpful point, as it happens, but your response to it is simply unreasonable.

I think ndm25 really did miss the point in the way you're now saying was always your point. But the way you responded to that, again, was to make an entirely baseless accusation: ndm25 didn't say or imply that the account doesn't exist, but that it's probably false; the error was in thinking that that's a big deal.

Incidentally, there's absolutely no way that 1 Kings is "3000-4000 years" old. More like 2500 years, which of course is still pretty old.

Comment author: bigjeff5 05 October 2011 02:33:06AM 6 points [-]

The earliest account I know of a scientific experiment is, ironically, the story of Elijah and the priests of Baal.

What do you mean by "I know of". Do you mean an account that you have evidence for? If yes, what >evidence is that? Or do you mean the earliest recorded? Surely there were early ones recorded. >Korach and the 250 men?

The OP mentioned the earliest account he knows of, and ed suggests he aught to know of earlier ones. This is, frankly, bizarre. The OP never suggested it was the earliest account in existence, or even that the account was true. The truth of the account was irrelevant to what the OP was talking about, and in fact the reason for pointing it out was almost certainly to show the irony that such a completely unreliable book could contain within one of its most famous stories the blueprint for dismantaling the veracity of the entire thing (or at least, all of its most questionable elements).

But ed wanted to take issue with it for some reason. It sounded like an attack on the OP for no reason other than that he mentioned something in the bible, which is lame, so I got snarky.

On the age, I was making a rough estimate - more a guess really - that was off by about 20% - not exactly something to get crazy over in my opinion. If you like, 1 Kings is probably between 2550 and 2570 years old. Better?

Comment author: Matthew_C. 05 August 2007 03:34:10AM -1 points [-]

. . .I would not bother to voice my objection except that you are the leader of a project that if successful will impose on the entire future light cone decisions that will have the same unbendable and irreversible character that physical law now has.

How exquisite to read something like this in a thread attacking the absurdities of the narratives of religious beliefs. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 05 August 2007 03:48:37AM 2 points [-]

Matthew, standard reply is at Rapture of the Nerds, Not.

Robin, I've expanded on my objection #5 to your "Why can't they still embrace the true essence?"

Comment author: Joseph_Hertzlinger 05 August 2007 05:29:01AM 2 points [-]

I've recently been trying to think of how to explain non-Euclidean geometry (or, what's worse, Cantorian set theory) to ancient Greek mathematicians. Is today's mathematics the same as their mathematics? After all, ancient Greek mathematics made falsifiable claims about actual measurements.

Comment author: Anna2 05 August 2007 07:51:42AM 2 points [-]

My apology, it's a long post but they are my final thoughts.

Eliezer: "Robin, I would indeed put someone who called themselves a Unitarian in a different class from someone who called themselves a Zoroastrian or Christian. It's still a big blatant mistake, but so long as the person is willing to take strict personal responsibility for their own moral judgments, it's a less urgent matter."

I'm not really clear as to why? Do you not think Unitarian has some affiliation to Zoroastrian or Christianity? Where do you think moral judgements come from? The laws written in any given literature are clear interpretations as to what was going on in that particular time frame, that does not mean they where right or wrong, it means they exist for a reason.

Eliezer, I believe you are a smart, highly inquisitive individual but your expertise does not reach the realm of belief as you clearly demonstrate an ignorance in regards to religion, spirituality, enlightment or such pretense. Please read more thoughts in regards to religion within history, scriptures, books, psalms, philosophy, psychology, etc., before judging the belief of belief. Your video example of the Jesus Camp was an awakening for me as I acknowledged that not all individuals are aware of the science behind religion and in fact, religion may be used as a source of irrationalism. The bias approach you took was in only refering to the "kooks" of religion instead of realizing that there exists many that are religious that don't exhibit that behavior. Within the context of kooks, I understand the need to promote Atheism but that does not mean that Atheists are more rational than the Christians if both have not done the research to understand the possibilities within the religious context.

Anyhow, it's been a pleasure. Thanks Robin (and many fascinating contributors) for creating Overcoming Bias. It might not appear but I have learned a great deal about bias. If your intention was to teach, you are doing a great job. At first, it was hard to grasp the concept but with time i've learned quite a lot.

It's time for me to go as I can't possibly stay and listen to people talk about overcoming bias and yet reply "your not smart enough to undertstand", that kinda contradicts the whole idea.

Without being aware, thanks to the many that have aided in my education.

Take care and I wish you well, Anna

Comment author: Paul_Gowder 05 August 2007 05:52:53PM 0 points [-]

So I take it you don't like Kierkegaard? Humph.

Seriously, though, I wonder to what extent it's really possible to argue people out of religion. And I strongly suspect it's close to zero.

Is the function of a post like this (and Dennett's books on the subject, and everything Dawkins has done in the last N years, etc. etc.) less to persuade and more to -- well -- call it argument as attire? By hammering out yet another strong argument about the overwhelming dumbness of religion, you, and Dennett, and Dawkins (and sometimes I) self-identify as a member of the atheist-intellectual-sciencenerd tribe.

Comment author: pnrjulius 19 May 2012 05:19:10AM 3 points [-]

It's clearly not zero. In fact, you mention Dawkins, who maintains a "Convert's Corner" of people who have become atheists (or at least come out as atheists) as a result of The God Delusion. The persuadability of humans is not as high as it ought to be if we were perfect Bayesians; but it also clearly not zero.

Comment author: CuSithBell 19 May 2012 05:22:38AM 3 points [-]

You've responded to several comments just now that were made years ago by people who no longer post here, probably migrated from the earlier form of the website. You may get responses and conversations, but probably will not get direct replies from the commenters you're addressing!

Comment author: pnrjulius 23 May 2012 03:56:00AM 4 points [-]

My general MO is to ignore the name and date and skip straight to the content. I suppose it does sometimes have a downside.

Comment author: CuSithBell 23 May 2012 06:02:35PM 2 points [-]

It's no big deal, really, most of the time. Actually, under "preferences" on the sidebar there's an "anti-kibitzing" mode that automatically hides karma and names, if you'd like that!

Comment author: Joshua_Fox 05 August 2007 06:28:02PM 7 points [-]

A peripheral correction:

They found out that, during the supposed time of the Exodus from Egypt, Egypt ruled Canaan. The tribes would have fled to find Pharaoh's armies already at the destination.

When Egypt ruled Canaan, it was through vassal kings and not with large garrisons (although there were occasional Egyptian governors and forts). Egyptian rule was weak, partial, and often broke down completely: There were kings opposed to Egypt, the vassals were not always loyal, and all kings were under attack from each other and from nomads. Some of these nomads may even be connected by name to the "Hebrews." It is not clear that Egypt would have truly "ruled" Canaan at certain dates which could be suggested for the Exodus.

None of this says that the precise Biblical story is true, nor damage your argument significantly, but the historical record does not suggest that flight from Egypt to Canaan would be quite so absurd as suggested here.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 05 August 2007 06:34:18PM 8 points [-]

Paul, since "rationality" for many people is a function of what they think they can get away with, I think there is winnable territory in terms of making belief in a scriptural religion - Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Scientology, etc. - socially less acceptable within the science/engineering community. If people know that saying "I believe in this 2,500-year-old culture dump" will be met by people saying, out loud or silently, "How incredibly stupid", they will be more reluctant to do it. One small step toward waking up out of the long nightmare. If people are not socially expected to think, they will not think.

Joshua, thanks, fixed.

Comment author: Lawrence_B._Crowell 06 August 2007 03:42:06AM 0 points [-]

This involves the issue of whether religion, or the claims of religion are an emperical matter. I would certainly say that the claims of religion are. The Tanach is full of references of how there are pillars upholding the Earth and a vault of heaven making the "firmament." Adonia opens portals in this vault to let the waters pour forth and Hoah flood take place. Of course we do understand things better. NASA has no problem of rockets running into some sort of dome.

Cosmology and quantum gravity are pointing to how the occurrence of the universe is a quantum tunnelling process (Heisenberg uncertainty etc) and if so the origin of the universe is random and spontaneous. In fact the totality of mass-energy in the universe may be zero. Thus nothing in total was created. What we call existence are local deviations away from the vacuum state. Is a God needed in this? I don't think so.

Of course there is biological evolution as well. Creationists might cite our ignorance on the origin of life, but that is simply an unanswered question. If Galileo and Kepler had shrugged their shoulders and said that God must organize the planets we'd still think angels push the planets around.

I think there is no God. I don't know that there is no God, nor do I believe there is no God. There simply are no credible reasons or empirical evidence that suggests even remotely that God exists.

The empirical impact on religion has been brutal since the time of Copernicus. Religion has consistently lost its intellectual authority over the last 400 years. The last major defeat it suffered came from Darwin, and quantum cosmology will doubtless deliver the next damaging blow.

It is hard to know how to comment about ethics. I tend to think that ethical systems die after they both lose their intellectual basis, and in the wake of many dead bodies having been stacked up because of that ethical principle. Margaret Atwood's "Handmaid's Tale" is a stark look at a future theocratic America. And some of these fundy types are pushing for things similar to this. If something of this nature takes place, religion will fade into the night once the regime has been swept away or imploded under its own weight.

Until such time the "essence" of religion, eg Jesus gift of salvation etc, will persist. Other people will do what I call shave the point to persist in creationist arguments. The claims of religion can be falsified, and in turn credible reason for the existence of a God removed. But believers always ressurect psuedo-empirical evidence for religion. It is like shooting ducks in a shooting gallery: You can shoot them down, but the damned things keep popping back up.

Lawrence B. Crowell

Comment author: Lee_Corbin 07 August 2007 05:46:23AM 1 point [-]

Robin asked "If lawyers and academics can disavow these ancient practices, while still embracing a true essence of law or academia, why can't religious folks disavow ancient religious practice in favor of some true essence that makes sense in modern terms?"

In "Retreat To Commitment", Bartley described the (at the time) very large and very powerful group of liberal Protestants who did so disavow ancient views, and look what it got them: demographic replacement by the faithful, by the Evangelists. It only looks like religious folks are different. In truth, after a while we no longer see many folks representing those newer, weaker memes. Isn't it just normal evolution?

Comment author: Lawrence_B._Crowell 07 August 2007 12:42:48PM 1 point [-]

I suspect that the origin of religion is deep in our evolution. Stories about spirits and totems of a landscape may well have their basis in the evolution of our linguistic ability. These "nature religions" are ways that information about an environment are communicated from generation to generation. This can be argued to have a survival benefit and something that is selected for. It has been with more recent development of complex social structures (towns, agriculture, empires etc) that these nature spirits became compressed into larger gods and eventually into God, or various notions of that concept.

If we are to use the meme idea of how such ideas persist, we need to not just consider the internal consistency of their logic (eg seen in mathematics, physics etc), or their empirical validation, but their psychological compulsive nature as well. Mathematics and science have elements of such compulsion, but at the end of the day reason triumphs over what might be called wishful thinking (compulsion). This compulsion may have its basis in our neocortical evolution. There just may be neural circuitry that needs to be fed mystical stimulus, and some people seem to need more of this stimulus than others.

Religion is purely psychological, and that people can continue to raise falsified notions of creationism illustrates their unwillingness to abandon something of a compulsive nature. The alcoholic in so called denial might come to mind. Creationism has become a political topic --- if they can't win in the science arena they will try in the halls of power.

I suspect that monotheistic religion will be around for a while. The vast and rapidly growing populations in the underdeveloped world are ample soil for the sewing of theological seeds, to invoke the parable in Matthew's Gospel. OTOH, such Protestant efforts to teach these people reading, of course to read the Bible, will mean that some will end up reading Darwin or Stephen Hawking.

Lawrence B. Crowell

Comment author: Lawrence_B._Crowell 08 August 2007 01:55:35PM 0 points [-]

Nope, this is not my cup of tea! I find far greater intellectual insight in working with modular forms, Jacobi theta-functions and algebraic or projective varieties. Applying these to understanding quantum codes makes them even more interesting.

I find religious services maybe only a bit more interesting than scrubbing the water marks off the bathroom and kitchen sinks and fixtures.

Lawrence B. Crowell

Comment author: David_J._Balan 08 August 2007 03:54:39PM 1 point [-]

Eliezer, you shouldn't have chased Anna away.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 08 August 2007 05:21:46PM 1 point [-]

David, I've dealt with her before.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 10 August 2007 01:08:36AM 1 point [-]

Ed, I mean that no earlier example came to mind off the top of my head. Korach doesn't include a symmetric experiment with an experimental and control group, etc. But I didn't exactly search exhaustively.

Comment author: eye-of-horus 18 August 2007 02:02:58AM 0 points [-]

I always marvel that religions which were empire-forming ideologies, historically late arrivals, whose common foundations are very much this-worldly, continue to charm otherwise intelligent people.

Zarathustra, Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed, each presents a silly moralistic cosmic dualism (Good/Evil, God/Devil, religious/secular, permanent/transitory). Ahura Mazda, Yahweh, God, and Allah are ethical equivalents of comic book super-villains.

And this pulp fiction enjoys fanatical cult followings.

Comment author: autolycus 29 July 2010 12:32:48PM 1 point [-]

I'm not particularly familiar with the exact tenets of Islam, and I'll stipulate the dualism in Zorastrianism and Christianity, but the only dualism I recall in the Books attributed to Moses is True/False, and even that seems to be more of a More Powerful/Less Powerful discussion.

Comment author: Kathryn_Laskey 18 August 2007 08:42:20PM 0 points [-]

Eliezer, your overgeneralized claims about religion are untrue. I expect more of a post in a forum dedicated to overcoming bias and seeking truth.

Sure, there are plenty of Biblical literalists in the world. But that's just one variety of religion. It's not what religion IS. Buddhists, Unitarians, Reform Jews, liberal Protestants, and many other self-identified religious people would object strenuously to your characterization of religion. Unitarians, liberal Christians and Jews treat the Bible as God-inspired allegory, to be understood in the historical context of the people who transmitted it orally and wrote it down. They do not view it as literal truth. Buddhism, one of the world's largest religions, makes no scientific claims and doesn't have any holy scriptures. Regarding your statements to the effect that religion is incompatible with tolerance of homosexuality, the Central Conference of American Rabbis (the Reform Jewish rabbinical organization) has officially supported gay marriage since 2000, and ordains gays and lesbians as rabbis. I could go on, but I rest my case.

Comment author: Charlie_(Colorado) 20 August 2007 11:47:01PM 1 point [-]

Well, one aspect of this that I find amusing in a mildly infuriating way is the common sort of understanding of "atheism" that seems to be largely based on a rejection of what someone learned in their fifth grade Sunday School classes. Kathryn above makes exactly this point (although I'd claim that Buddhism makes specifically scientific claims: that following certain practices based on a certain understanding of the Nature of Things, leads to greater peace of mind and less suffering.) But then she nails it by noting that the claim that "religion" is invariably incompatible with tolerance of homosexuality is simply untrue, even among adherents of a religion in the Abrahamic tradition.

Just yesterday I was reading a well-recommended apologia that similarly claimed "religion" was incompatible with finding meaning in life from a sense of immanence, as opposed to transcendence. It wasn't bad as an argument, but it depended on a statement of the meaning of "religion" that defined it in terms of transcendence, thereby excluding the various monist, animist, and pantheist traditions from American Indian religion to Shinto and Hinduism. One might charitably ascribe the circularity of argument to ignorance, instead of intellectual dishonesty, but either way it's fatally flawed.

In any case, though, the underlying question appears to be either (1) can a literal interpretation of the claims of Old Testament miracles and cosmogony be seen as consistent with current scientific knowledge, or (2) is religious "knowledge" compatible, commesurable, with scientific "knowledge" in any way, or are they so different as to form completely distinct and separate magisteria?

The answer to (1) is, pretty clearly, mostly no. Why mostly? Because there are logically sustainable interpretations that could be "true" --- they're just ones that completely undercut the scientific mode of thought --- like the notion that Deity would create the world in seven days, 6014 years ago, with built in fossils, pre-created illusions of distant galaxies, etc, so that the universe would be in all ways indistinguishable from one that around in a Big Bang tens of billions of years in the past. But that leads directly to the conclusion that the answer to (2) must be "yes", by a Gรถdelian argument. A Superior Being who could do (1) --- which is inescapably true of any God capable of doing the Old Testament thing --- must also, inescapably, be able to construct a universe in which any experimental verification of Its existence would be answered "no", if that is Its wish. Similarly, such a Superior Being must be capable of constructing the universe in such a way that any attempted falsification of Its existence would fail.

But then, if A can neither be falsified by experiment, nor can its converse be falsified, it's simply outside of the domain of "scientific" knowledge; it cannot be evaluated in scientific terms. Which is to say, it's a separate magisterium. (Notice that this doesn't say any statement in that separate magisterium is true. It's just part of a different system.)

Comment author: pnrjulius 19 May 2012 05:26:49AM 2 points [-]

Could God make a universe where there was no evidence of him? Sure. But given such a universe, we have no reason to believe in God---because there's no evidence of him, you just stipulated that.

Also, why would he? Doesn't God want us to believe in him? Why then give us brains but not evidence?

Comment author: J. 25 November 2007 08:03:58PM 1 point [-]


Presumably you think that the statement, "X is a truth only if falsifiable" is true. Is this statement falsifiable?

It isn't falsifiable on empirical grounds. It might be falsiable on a priori grounds, though I bet that's not what you have in mind. If you admit of a priori grounds, though, you've opened the door back up for ethics despite it not being empirically testable.

Comment author: Nick_Tarleton 25 November 2007 09:24:32PM 0 points [-]

"X is a truth only if falsifiable" can be a useful rule of thumb rather than a statement that is true or false.

Comment author: Chris 25 November 2007 10:24:20PM 1 point [-]

Eliezar, something of a 'rant' ? 'the people who invented the Old Testament stories could make up pretty much anything they liked'.... overlooking that we're talking about oral traditions committed to writing centuries later. Of course the domain covered by the books of the old testament covers law, social customs, and a whole bunch of stuff which is now the domain of other institutions. Of course ideas have moved on in most of those domains. I'd be more interested in reading your ideas about why the fears, insecurities, and identitiy issues so many of us face in an age of increasing change and complexity are leading to a 'back to the 17thC', 'back to the womb' type increase in clinging to both 'believing' and 'believing in' this particular dragon in the garage. This is not just a US phenomenon, we're seeing it in the UK also. Derision won't help, nor, most certainly, will logical argument.

Comment author: Caledonian2 25 November 2007 11:42:44PM 2 points [-]

But then, if A can neither be falsified by experiment, nor can its converse be falsified, it's simply outside of the domain of "scientific" knowledge; it cannot be evaluated in scientific terms. Which is to say, it's a separate magisterium. (Notice that this doesn't say any statement in that separate magisterium is true. It's just part of a different system.)

No, it's entirely unreal. This 'superior being' would have created an entire timeline in which it did not intervene, because it erased any influence it had over events from that timeline, so from any perspective within the timeline, an observer could only conclude that the being did not exist.

If it were impossible even in theory to detect this being from within the timeline, then the being wouldn't be in the same universe as the events in that timeline, and wouldn't actually exist.

Comment author: Benquo 26 November 2007 05:24:52AM 5 points [-]

@ Paul Gowder:

"I wonder to what extent it's really possible to argue people out of religion. And I strongly suspect it's close to zero."

I was argued of religion. An epistemic argument is what did it -- the "God" I "believed in" turned out to be a nearly meaningless concept.

Comment author: TGGP4 26 November 2007 05:46:48AM 0 points [-]

J, I generally treat non-falsifiable statements as basically being meaningless in an objective sense but possibly revealing something about the speaker. Your statement about true statements was somewhat like a definition, and it is pointless to try to falsify a definition, they merely permit people to discuss something using the same term.

Comment author: DB 26 November 2007 06:15:27PM 1 point [-]


Thanks for a thought-provoking post. I do, however, have some criticisms:

1) Not to be snarky, but you obviously aren't talking about "religion." You are discussing Christianity. Clearly you cannot disprove Hindu on the basis of disproving the Old Testament (if you had disproven the Old Testament, which I don't believe you have).

2) You mention Christ once: to call his miracle into question. Other than that, He is a footnote. Everything necessary for salvation, however, from a Christian perspective, is contained in the New Testament. Should we discard the Old? No. But historical accounts unchallenging to modern sensibilities were no more the intention of Old Testament writers than was "Origin of the Species" intended to be a religious text. If you wish to disprove Christianity, you would probably do better to start with the life and claims of Jesus Christ. If you merely wish to introduce the possibility of doubt into the conversation, I doubt any thinking Christian would argue with you.

3) You mention twice that the Old Testament doesn't display a sense of wonder at the complexity of the universe. Consider if you will Yahweh's address to Job at the end of the book. How does your assertion stand up to that text?

4)There are some category-confusion errors evident here. For instance, you mention the ethical problem of "slaughtering...innocent...male children," as though the Israelites themselves did the slaughtering. This is a theological, and not an ethical question. If you propose to discuss theology, how do you propose to do so? As a cultural construct? There are some thorny problems built into judging the actions of a God that you also deny exists.

5)The sense of your post seems to be that if some portions of the Old Testament can be falsified or called into question, then Christianity (or, as you euphemistically put it, "religion") can be disproven. You are applying to the scientific method to historical/cultural accounts of the world; something rarely done. But fine. My challenge to you is this: can you quantify the exact criteria that the biblical account would have to meet in order to be falsifiable?

You reference in this post a link to another post, in which the authors of this (fascinating) site admit to failing their own test of bias. They note that, like Christians, they strive for an unbiased view of the world, while occasionally failing in their own lives. The principle (a theoretical lack of bias) is therefore not abandoned despite evidence to the contrary.

Could the same courtesy not be extended to religious adherents?



Comment author: DB 26 November 2007 06:44:24PM 0 points [-]

Apologies; in point 5 I said you referenced the following link. You did not in this post. However, it does exist on this site: http://www.overcomingbias.com/2007/08/we-are-not-unba.html

Comment author: g 26 November 2007 09:45:25PM 4 points [-]

DB, what makes you think Eliezer is talking only about Christianity and not equally about Orthodox Judaism? (Hint: look at his name, or his past postings here.) In fact, how can it make sense to say (1) he's definitely talking specifically about Christianity even though (2) he says "religion" instead and (3) Jesus is only a footnote?

I think you're clearly right that there's some sense of the wonder of the universe in YHWH's speech to Job, and also in (e.g.) Psalm 19. But I don't think Eliezer's point is much dented by this: he's saying that although some religious folks now like to say that religion is all about the awe and wonder and beauty of the universe, those weren't major themes until recent times. Look even at those two passages, which I think are about the best the Bible has to offer in this department. In Job the awe-and-wonder-and-beauty is strictly subordinated to the real job at hand, which is reminding Job of how much bigger and cleverer and stronger God is than him, so he should just shut up, OK? (Job does just shut up, and repents in dust and ashes for daring to question the Almighty, which when you consider what the Almighty has done even on the book's own terms seems rather beyond the call of duty. But I digress.) In Psalm 19, again the real point of all the stuff about natural beauty is to make a point (though a more congenial one to most of us these days) about the relationship between God and us; and the best way the Psalmist can find to follow up his musings on stars and sun is to say (so far as I can make out) "hmm, now, what else is like the stars and the sun? Ah yes, I know -- the Law!" The Law, with its magnificent provision for rape victims to marry their rapists. The Law, with its beautiful declaration that people whose genitals have been damaged are to be excluded from the congregation. Slender pickings here for anyone who would claim that religion is all about awe and wonder at the created world.

I don't understand what category error you think Eliezer is committing when he declares himself unimpressed at God's alleged slaughter of all firstborn Egyptian males. And there are no thorny problems built into judging the *alleged* actions of a god whose existence you deny; the argument just goes like this: "If your religion is correct, then a perfectly good being did this and that and the other, and those things are obviously not good. Therefore, I reject your religion as ethically unfit for decent human beings". Of course it's open to you to argue that actually slaughtering thousands of innocent children is a *good* thing when YHWH does it, but it's not an easy argument to make with a straight face.

I don't think Eliezer says that if some bits of the OT can be called into question then Christianity is refuted. He says that a whole lot of the OT (and the NT), taken as it was originally intended and continued to be interpreted for centuries, has been shown to be almost certainly wrong. Not quite the same thing.

If "the principle" behind this site were that (say) Eliezer is, in fact, unbiased, then it would deserve to be abandoned on presentation of weighty evidence to the contrary. But it isn't; it's that reducing how biased we are is usually a good idea, and the fact that all the principals here admit that they have biases is no evidence at all against *that*. What courtesy, exactly, are you saying should be extended to religious adherents?

Comment author: DB 26 November 2007 10:27:12PM 0 points [-]


Sure, he could be talking about Orthodox Judaism. But even if that is taken in conjunction with Christianity, it hardly comprises "religion." But if his intention is merely to show a test case, I concede the point.

I can't help feeling that these "awe and wonder" religionists are straw men. Awe and wonder, from a Christian perspective anyway, are only part of what is offered in scripture.

It's a categorical error because it assumes an equivalent relationship between God and people. (It also ignores the context of the occurence, but that's another issue) We aren't always to do as God does. That's the difference between ethics and theology. Another question is, why should this occurence be singled out as factual when the rest of the OT is taken as suspect?

How do we know how the OT was originally intended? What specific things have been misinterpreted for centuries?

The parallel that I'm making is between one (apparently unproven) principle: people can be unbiased, or at least that bias can be reduced, and another (apparently unproven) principle: the biblical account could be true. If we say that certain evidence (people have been unable to eliminate bias in themselves) doesn't disprove the first principle (lack of bias is achievable), then we might extrapolate that some evidence (there are archeological and theological difficulties in the OT) doesn't disprove the second.

Comment author: Chris 26 November 2007 10:50:38PM 0 points [-]

I'm left in 'awe and wonder' at the literalism of the debates going on here. The OT is a bunch of mythology and folklore, so, what else is new ? The NT is a heterogenous collection of Roman imperial propaganda, Jewish apocalyptic propaganda, and perhaps, some vague recollections of what a good man once said. So ? What does any of that have to do with logical categories ? Eliezar is guilty, as Anna pointed out, of mixing up the crudest OT literalism with any and every other level of religious experience and expression. I understand that, he was traumatised at age 5. Perhaps that also explains the violence of his reaction to Anna. The only interesting debate on the 'singulsrity' of religion is exactly the same debate as that on the 'singularity' of consciousness. Either there is a 'watcher', in the void, behind all thought and image, which constitutes the irreducible core of my consciousness , as for instance Daniel Dennett would not agree, or there is not. If there is, then there is a basis for religion. If there is not, then there is a basis for saying that we will never know final causes nor final intents, and what the hell.

Comment author: DB 26 November 2007 11:03:46PM -1 points [-]


Do I understand, then, that you reject the possibility of revelational knowledge of the divine?


Comment author: g 26 November 2007 11:10:16PM 2 points [-]

Yeah, perhaps they're straw men. There seems to be a bit of a shortage of non-straw defenders of (serious) religion, though. I mean, there are the fundamentalists and the young-earthers and such -- I'm focusing on Christianity because that's the religion I know best; maybe things are different with other religions -- who are (sometimes) clear and (usually) forceful but also obviously wrong. And there are the woolly liberal types who mostly refrain from saying anything too testable.

Unless a religion is simply going to degenerate into power-worship, you can't just say "no fair applying ethical standards to God". If you believe in a god whose behaviour fits my notions of psychopathic evil, then I'm not going to be interested in worshipping him, and I decline to regard that as a cognitive failing. (Of course some actions might be almost always wrong when done by humans but sometimes right when done by God. But that's an argument that actually needs *making* in each case. For that matter, some actions might be almost always wrong when done by you but sometimes right when done by me, but if I murder your spouse or smash your house with a wrecking ball then you're going to insist on some actual evidence before believing that I had mysterious sufficient reasons.)

Why single that episode out as factual? Well, firstly I'm not sure anyone is doing. Factual or not, the story is presumably there for a reason and is meant to be taken seriously one way or another. Secondly, there's the little fact of its being the story behind possibly the single most important of all Jewish religious festivals, and one of the founding myths of the Jewish people, and also something appropriated in a big way (albeit metaphorically) by Christianity. So if what's at the centre of the story is an act of atrocious evil by the supposedly good God who's the hero of the story, it seems like that might be worth noticing.

(And, really. What a story. God visits all these horrors (culminating in the death of every firstborn) on the Egyptians, most of whom didn't have anything to do with the Israelites' woes. Why does he have to do these things? Because nasty mean Pharaoh won't Let My People Go. And why won't he? Well, er, because "God hardened Pharaoh's heart". Splendid. What a fine moral example for us all.)

I don't know what evidence Eliezer has for how the Bible (the OT in particular) used to be used.

Your last paragraph is puzzling. If the alleged principle is that "people can be unbiased" then the response is that no one at all is claiming any such thing, so it doesn't seem like making that parallel with "the biblical account could be true" is any use to you. But if it's that "bias can be reduced" then you've offered no evidence against it, whereas there is in fact ample evidence that "the Biblical account" is not true.

And it's not a matter of *proof*, but of *evidence*; not a matter of *possibility* (as in "the biblical account *could* be true") but of *probability*. You appear to be offering an argument that something can be possible even though there's a bit of evidence against it. Well, yes, obviously, but Eliezer isn't saying (and neither am I) that Orthodox Judaism or not-outrageously-liberal Christianity is *impossible* because there's *some* evidence against it; but that it's *very improbable* because there's *lots* of evidence against it.

Comment author: Chris7 26 November 2007 11:21:00PM 0 points [-]

Hi DB, no I don't. I 'believe' in its improbability, if you're talking voices out of a burning bush. On the other hand, I would look for some commonality in the revelations to different peoples at different times. I would, for instance, strongly reject the notion of a chosen people, or a chosen time, for such revelation. I would also be very wary of any categorisation of the notion 'divine'. Different levels of consciousness, yes. 'God Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth', perhaps a little too simplistic. Final cause ? The 'divine revelation' as understood by Hindu Yogis tempts me more than any other.

Comment author: DB 27 November 2007 03:55:00PM 0 points [-]


I don't propose to defend Exodus 11. It's a difficult passage from within a theological framework (which I'm sure you recall), but even more difficult when taken in isolation from the whole counsel of scripture. I struggle with it myself, and I suspect I'm meant to do so. But I do have to insist that we either differentiate between ethics and theology, or admit up front that there is a commitment to assuming God is made in man's image, and not the other way around.

I fear that in my zeal, I may have drifted into waters I didn't intend to swim in. Eliezer's point is that religion can be disproven. How does he prove it can be disproven? By showing aspects of a particular religion(s) that are disprovable.

Do I agree that religion can be disproven? Sure, some of it. It really depends on what we count as religion. What I really found myself reacting strongly to was the paragraph that begins

Back in the old days, people actually believed their religions instead of just believing in them.

Perhaps I did violence to his thought, but my point is that all of us, I think, believe in things (believe them despite contrary evidence). (I understand that he may have meant that people believe despite a sense of the futility of belief. To me, this is not belief. Doubt is not the same as despair. If there is no content to the belief, and no content believed, then it is nothing but superstition and lies) To me, the idea of reducing bias smacks of an anxious, pre-Kuhnian rationalism--a return to Platonic ideal. Ironically, as a Christian, I found myself occupying Sophistic territory. To reduce bias is actually to substitute one bias for another. For instance, we might reduce the bias we find in interpreting things through a Christian lens by substituting the bias of a scientific, rationalistic lens (which aspires to a non-lens, but is a lens nonetheless).

My goal is not to prove Christianity here, but to express doubt at the idea that it is disprovable merely by these machinations.


I'm intrigued by your comment about the bible being folklore, and especially that the NT is propaganda. I suppose if we take Jesus to be a Jewish revolutionary, I could see the Jewish apocalyptic propaganda, but where do you find the Roman imperialist propaganda?



Comment author: gwern 01 July 2009 03:07:50PM *  3 points [-]

I'm intrigued by your comment about the bible being folklore, and especially that the NT is propaganda. I suppose if we take Jesus to be a Jewish revolutionary, I could see the Jewish apocalyptic propaganda, but where do you find the Roman imperialist propaganda?

It's a staple of higher biblical criticism; I no longer read much of it, but from what I remember, a number of Gospel features and language are there specifically to endorse the Roman hegemony and try to make early Christianity appear harmless and compatible with it.

Off the top of my head: 'render unto Caesar', and the blood-guilt of Jesus's martyrdom being put on the Jews and not the Romans/Pontius Pilate (Pilate as depicted in the Gospels is an absurd farrago of fiction, as a comparison with the narrow-minded blood-thirsty Pilate of Josephus will readily demonstrate).

Comment author: g 27 November 2007 06:50:00PM 5 points [-]

DB, I think you're making a false dichotomy, and I don't see how your position avoids your religion degenerating into power-worship or something equally unpalatable. Why do *you* worship and serve God? Because he's good? Bzzt, nope, because you've made "good" completely content-free when predicated of God. Because he's big and powerful and created the world? Power-worship. (Would you worship the devil if he were more powerful than God?) Because he's saved you from your sins? Mere self-interest. (If the devil could make an even better offer -- save you from your sins *and* provide you with a billion dollars, or whatever -- would you worship him instead?)

Also: If you don't trust your notion of goodness to tell you whether or not God would engage in genocide or mass murder on a feeble pretext, why do you trust it to tell you whether or not he'd supply you with deliberately deceiving scriptures, traditions, revelations, etc.?

I can't speak for Eliezer, but I expect he'd agree with me on this: yes, sure, there are religions that can't be disproven, or even have strong evidence offered against them. (Or for them.) I think he's saying only (1) that it's not true that religion *as such* somehow doesn't interact with evidence in such a way as to be disprovable, and (2) that some religions with a great many adherents saying that they can't be disproved are -- to be as generous as possible -- the descendants of religions that *were* disprovable, and it sure looks as if the adjustments that may have made them non-disprovable were made in direct response to the appearance of credible threats of actual disproof.

(Of course "disproof" in that paragraph is shorthand for "being rendered very improbable by weighty contrary evidence".)

Of course all of us believe some things despite being aware of what ought to be sufficient contrary evidence. Put a little differently: all of us are irrational sometimes. That undisputed fact doesn't tell us anything about whether it's ever *right* to believe things despite a heavy preponderance of contrary evidence, or when it is if so.

If you find the idea of trying to become more rational and less biased "anxious" and outmoded and otherwise disagreeable: well, fine, that's up to you. I've suggested before (in conversation with someone else) that maybe there should be a site at www.embracingbias.com for those who take that view. But then, what are you doing here? :-)

I think "Christianity" is too vague a term to denote something disprovable (or provable). But, again being as generous as possible, some varieties of Christianity do make statements about the world that could be supported or undermined by evidence, and typically it turns out that it's the latter. And these aren't freaky culty fringe versions of Christianity, but perfectly mainstream versions -- except that in some circles nowadays what's considered mainstream is something that would have been considered majorly blasphemous to just about any serious Christian from the start of Christianity through to a couple of centuries ago at the latest.

Of course that needn't bother you; plenty of things that are widely and solidly known now would have astonished the scientists of a couple of centuries ago, and that doesn't discredit science. The difference is that Christianity, or any other revealed religion, is backward-looking in a way that (for instance) science isn't. Unless you reckon that God has revealed everything to you directly, whatever reasons you have for believing in Christianity rather than (say) some sort of vague deism or something vaguely Christian but lavishly heretical have to go via the beliefs of the church through the ages, or the Bible, or some other thing that establishes continuity with the ancient Christian tradition. And *that* is somewhat discredited if it turns out that until very recently almost all Christians believed (as part of their religion) a bunch of false things.

Comment author: Chris7 27 November 2007 07:33:00PM 0 points [-]

DB, all I can or will say about the Bible being folklore is that to the best of my knowledge it occupies a similar position in the literary history of its culture as, say, the Mahabharata or the Mabinogion or the Kalevala do in theirs. Those more expert than I could comment the Babylonian texts prefiguring the Biblical ones, or the implications of the diversity in the Dead Sea scrolls. An alternative approach is simply to consider the diversity of types of text constituting the OT. Rich and various it is, but most of it has nothing much to do with Divinity (Numbers, Deuteronomy, Judges, Kings, Chronicles....not much transcendence there).
I certainly overstated my case concerning Roman imperial propaganda (late nights ), however, Constantine did have a heavy hand in the selection of the texts that constitute the NT, and it's no accident that a hierarchical, centralised church, with HQs in Rome & Constantinople, was imposed over, for instance the Copt or Irish monastic models, which had the fault of being non-authoritarian.

Comment author: DB 27 November 2007 07:39:00PM 2 points [-]


Thanks for challenging me here. In an effort to avoid insisting too much, and leaning too much on the goodwill of all involved, I'll let that be the last word.

Thanks, Chris.



Comment author: g 27 November 2007 08:20:00PM 1 point [-]

OK. (Interesting discussion. Thanks.)

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 27 November 2007 09:32:00PM 0 points [-]

Well said, G. Ordinarily Overcoming Bias frowns on comments this long but this is worth an exception.

Comment author: Allan_Crossman 27 July 2008 01:43:00PM 5 points [-]

I hope the priests of Baal checked that it was indeed water, and not some sort of accelerant.

Comment author: Kellen_Lewis 12 December 2008 11:47:00PM 0 points [-]

If you show me the dead body of Jesus Christ, I will give up being a Christian.

Comment author: Eric7 16 April 2009 03:00:00PM 3 points [-]


What evidence would convince you that something you were shown (e.g. a pile of bones, some dust on a sidewalk, or anything else) were the dead body of Jesus Christ?

Comment author: Georgia 29 April 2009 05:27:00AM 0 points [-]


I certianly stumbled into something here. I was actually looking up ojectivity and bias in relation to Accounting. But anyway...

I tend to agree with most of you in that I find it difficult to believe in something I have no proof of. Now, I am not even attempting to say I am an expert in either religion or athiesim, or much of what was discussed here. However, I will relate what I once said in a discussion with someone else.

We fell on the discussion of religion in the abstract. I tend to feel that much of what goes on in the world, i.e. wars, strife, conflict etc. is merely a reflection of our animal tendencies. At the risk of stepping on some toes here, in truth, we are nothing more than evolved mammals. We go to war, or beat up the neighbor for looking at, or sleeping with, our spouse, seek out money and power, because that is in the nature of almost every creature alive on earth today. By that, I mean we go to war or put up fences to "stake out our territory", much as a dog pees on a bush to warn another dog away. Simplified, yes, but you get my meaning. We seek power, because most social animals have a heirarchy of leadership, i.e., leader of the pack. And so on and so forth. The pack would fall apart without social laws and acceptence of the leader. And the pack is necessary to hunt and survive. It all comes back to survival...our evolved sense of ourselves is what leads us to attempt to create or build or discover...and cats are just as curious as we are. This is because learning about our world helps us to survive. We seek medicines to combat deseases, because this ensures the survival of our species. We look for better weapons, better ways to make money, defend ourselves etc., because this also leads back to survival.

The argument I was presented with was fairly simple. It is not all about survival, because if that were the case, it would be too depressing. Huh... So, there must be a purpose to all that we do because we want there to be one? There must be life after death, because otherwise there would be no meaning to all that we do, and that is just too depressing to consider? I might hate that I will face a great deal of debt once I graduate school, but wishing it otherwise does not mean I will be debt free. Wanting meaning in our lives, or a divine purpose to what we do, does not make it true. Once we die, we're dead, and we won't much care about what we did on earth anyway...unless of course you believe in heaven and hell. And I find that theory to be more like the story of the boogey man, told to frighten children into obeying their parents. "You will be eaten by the boogey man if you do not do what I say", is a form of control much on the lines with: "you will go to hell if you do not believe what I say"...and religion is the ultimate form of control. Up to the point when the children or the congregation says "I don't believe you."

In any case, as I said, I am hardly qualified to enter into a deeper debate. I understand that the purpose of this post is to reduce bias. Many religions offer many useful concepts, both in the context of morality and ethics...but morality and ethics also differ from culture to culture and country to country. As do religions....

Thank you for allowing me an opportunity to voice my opinion. I fully expect to be disagreed with.


Comment author: xamdam 17 March 2010 03:40:21AM *  6 points [-]

"not one single passage of the Old Testament will you find anyone talking about a transcendent wonder at the complexity of the universe"

Eli, Not sure what you'd consider "the Old testament", but just to be fair to tanakh:

Psalm 8:3-9 When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?

On a different note, Bob Aumann explained his religion by "orthogonality" in an interview; not sure if that was in the same sense as you're using it here, but made as much sense as the trinity to me (none).

Comment author: BenAlbahari 17 March 2010 03:58:02AM *  3 points [-]

I quoted Eliezer, along with other experts, on either side of the issue, here:
Can science prove or disprove the existence of God?

Comment author: HonoreDB 05 October 2011 02:14:00AM 0 points [-]

I love your site. Pedantry: I don't think Andrew Sullivan's quote belongs on the "Disagree" side.

Comment author: novalis 23 September 2010 11:03:29PM 0 points [-]

The vast majority of religions in human history - excepting only those invented extremely recently - tell stories of events that would constitute completely unmistakable evidence if they'd actually happened.

I wish there were a version of this article that discussed religions invented extremely recently.

Comment author: Kishin 14 February 2011 06:48:56PM 1 point [-]

an atheist argument in support of an almighty god. this is not meant to be a straw argument but rather a (hopefully) rational aspect on the futility of disproving religion and god.
To set out what i currently think i understand about Eliezer's argument, He conceives as god as the programmer. our reality is akin to the matrix and God is they guy who has total control. He can rewind his scenario, review it as a whole, and can basically do anything he wills. With this definition in mind, Eliezer takes roughly two or three methods of disapproval. 1) disapproval by confirmed falsification of observed events. ie: our world is not in fact, riding on four elephants standing on a turtle swimming through the great unknown. (disapproval by photo of earth quite clearly hanging in the darkness of the universe suspiciously absent of turtle) 2) this one i am shakier on his use of, but I would call it disapproval by logical impossibility. ie: questions such as can god create a rock that he cannot lift? or the simple proof by non appearance, if he proves himself through non interference then miracles are proof of his non existence ( I will note that i have heard my first example to be flawed) 3) proof by Ethical observation. Using rationally derived ethics as a prior, we compare those to God's observed actions (ie killing first born sons to make a point) and compare to see where they do not match.

Unfortunately, all of these disproofs (with the exception of the third to a certain degree) are all based on a simple prior that is on shaky ground itself, which is my (hopefully correct) assumption of Eliezer's model of God. I'm not entirely sure at which point all powerful lost its meaning, but I'm relatively sure that from a strict assumption of "all powerful" i would anticipate seeing an entity that is more than capable of bypassing logical impossibility IE: god can preform acts that under Bayesian reasoning come out to more that 100% and on top of that can preform them in our reality without breaking it (yet another case of over 100%). In the end it leads back to the original Descartes questions of doubt, how can we be sure of anything and the answer turns out, we can't. All powerful means all powerful. For a lesser illustration of what i mean, see the flying spaghetti monster, who changes experimental results as they happen so that everything we have ever tried has been systematically falsified to make it look like we live in an ordered and structured universe when we don't.

Comment author: Kishin 14 February 2011 07:02:21PM 2 points [-]

as i post this i realize it stinks of a mysterious answer along the lines of lord kelvin. To clarify, i do not glory in this, i don't even like it. But if I am to stay dedicated to rationalism, I must look for ways to disprove my postition and it so far has informed me that to do battle with an almighty creator or the delusions of him, we must first find solid ground to work from, and we have yet to find it. I also recognize that the flying spaghetti monster argument is used to make the exact opposite statement of what i used it for, but thats what makes it good. Its not just a satire, its an observation of what things would look like in the presences of an all powerful god.

Comment author: ArisKatsaris 14 February 2011 07:09:35PM *  4 points [-]

You don't need to "do battle with an almighty creator", because you don't have enough evidence to even privilege the hypothesis of an almighty creator.

The rational thing isn't to try to disprove every damn thing that might cross your mind, but to rather say "I don't have enough evidence to justify wasting my time on such an idea".

Comment author: ArisKatsaris 14 February 2011 07:06:07PM 0 points [-]

Since Eliezer doesn't believe God exists, what are you talking about when you're talking about "Eliezer's model of God"? Do you perhaps means how Eliezer models other people modeling their own concept of God?

On the whole you seem to me to be confused about what you're attempting to do. Or perhaps I'm the one confused: Is your claim that one can't disprove any religion, or that one can't disprove all religions?

Either way, I'm reasonably certain that you have Eliezer's "model" wrong. Eliezer doesn't have a model of God, because he doesn't believe in God, and Eliezer also knows other people have more than one models of what they label "god".

Comment author: Kishin 14 February 2011 08:10:20PM *  0 points [-]

good point, let me go back and refine, the model that I perceive Eliezer talking about. I think you are the one confused but only because i was confusing. my original point was that spending time working on proving or disproving a religion is a waste of time because of what I pointed out above, either we have a regular and consistent universe to discover or we are having the wool pulled over our eyes at every turn and which ever way it is, it's meaningless to worry about it until we find any sort of solid evidence in either direction. I wasn't even referring to a particular religion, just the general religious concept of an all powerful deity or deities of any sort. I was just trying to point out the irrationality of going about disproving something that (if we take a religious source at its word) can exists beyond the bonds of logic. Thanks for the reply and the criticism though, if you haven't caught on, I'm new to here and looking for the help to improve.

Comment author: GabeEisenstein 12 March 2011 07:03:09PM 2 points [-]

I found this site through the posts on decoherence and many-worlds; I haven't yet read them all, and look forward to doing so. Also enjoyed the posts on Bayesian rationality.

But I was disappointed by this one. The main reason is that it implicitly reduces all religious phenomena to matters of belief, which I think is a mistake.

To be clear about where I'm coming from: I don't hold any religious beliefs. Nevertheless, I think that much of what goes on in religion is psychologically or sociologically beneficial. And I think that religious language is often misconstrued (by religious and nonreligious people alike) as expressing beliefs, when it actually (or also) functions in other ways. (It expresses certain kinds of attitudes and perspectives.)

Eliezer's main point is to deny that religion can't be disproven. In order to do this, he paints a picture of religion as essentially a set of beliefs. Addressing people like me who want to save some non-epistemic subset of religion, he says "The orthogonality of religion and factual questions is a recent and strictly Western concept." I want to make two points about this.

The first is that even if it's true, it says nothing about the value of modern people pursuing such non-fact-based activities. Explorations of attitudes and global perspectives can be pursued via religious language in much the same way as it is pursued in non-religious art, literature, poetry, etc. Eliezer takes "ethics" as the core of the non-fact-based questions. His argument against religious ethics is that the Bible contains elements that conflict with contemporary ethics, which has "progressed" since the Bible was written. The argument simply ignores the fact that religious ethics also progresses. In other words, Eliezer implicitly focuses on fundamentalist religion; but many modern religious people explicitly treat the Bible as a literary background to rational reflections taking contemporary attitudes and insights into account. Eliezer seems strangely unaware that many modern religious people have fought against slavery, for women's rights, gay rights, etc.

In fact, he seems unaware that such rational revisions of traditional attitudes have been going on for thousands of years--and this leads into my second point: the separation between myth and morality is not something new. The prophets Hosea and Amos explicitly reject mythology when it overshadows morality; they make fun of people who think that animal sacrifices can atone for bad deeds, or that religion essentially depends on anything beyond morality. The book of Deuteronomy contains many revisions of earlier material in Exodus, turning laws from a mythic to an ethical rationale. And the Talmud contains countless examples wherein Biblical morality is reversed, explicitly or implicitly.

So I think Eliezer is doubly wrong about the orthogonality of religion and factual questions.

I clicked on a link in this post to "believing in". I expected to find an acknowledgment of the purely non-epistemic sense that this phrase often carries ("I believe in the right to organize","I believe in myself", "I believe in America"). Instead I found arguments against people who hold factual beliefs without or despite evidence. But I would hypothesize that many people who affirm beliefs without evidence are actually just affirming an attitude which they are used to expressing in the misleading belief-language. For many, "belief in God" expresses solidarity with a particular community and a set of attitudes toward the world and other people.

The main fault I find with Eliezer's analysis is that it appears blind to the literary character of many Biblical texts. He says "The vast majority of religions in human history…tell stories of events that would constitute completely unmistakable evidence if they'd actually happened." But this is also true of literature in general. It in no way implies that authors or readers of the stories take them literally. Anybody who thinks that Ezekiel literally expected bones to rise from graves, or that the author and audience of the story of Balaam's ass took it differently from, say, Aesop's stories, is operating with a deficient view of how stories work.

Final point: Eliezer sets himself against those who posit "wonder" as a basis and/or effect of religious language. He finds no (or very little) wonder in ancient texts. But from a philosophical point of view, I would nominate a different emotion as the essential religious category: gratitude. The most positive attitude toward the world or one's life must contain gratitude, even when what one is grateful for is something as vague as life itself, and even if one posits no metaphysical entity toward which one is grateful. And ancient religion certainly expresses such global gratitude.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 12 March 2011 07:33:01PM 2 points [-]

Click through the "antitheism" tag for more. This is just one post.

Comment author: GabeEisenstein 13 March 2011 01:54:29AM 2 points [-]

Thank you, I read all of those. What I find is that you are able to focus on some of the non-propositional uses of religious language--like cheering for one's affinity group--yet your attitude toward such utterances is still to treat them as false propositions. I would suggest that someone who emphasizes the absurdity of her own language (that is, absurdity from a factual, propositional perspective) is trying to shift attention away from the propositional and toward an aesthetic sensibility.

If we expect science and get art, we will be disappointed; but if we look at linguistic behavior in its variety, we learn to expect more emotional expression and social interchange, less representation of facts.

I also find that you concentrate on fundamentalist or other strange examples, never the work of thinkers like Buber, Merton, Campbell, Watts, etc. I would especially recommend to you Wittgenstein's views on religion, as found in his essay on Frazer's Golden Bough.

Comment author: lessdazed 24 July 2011 05:47:00AM 5 points [-]

Yvain's parable.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 12 March 2011 08:06:18PM 5 points [-]

You are, of course, correct that one can approach the Bible (or any scriptural text) the same way one approaches Aesop's fables, or the Grimm brothers' fairy tales, or the Watchman graphic novel -- that is, as a collection of stories that reflect the concerns and ethical and aesthetic sensibilities of a particular culture at a particular time.

It's certainly possible.

That said, the religious community I grew up in encouraged us to interpret the fossil record in ways that were consistent with the stories in the Bible, even when that required ignoring scientific evidence and in some cases common sense.

This either demonstrates (as you say) a deficient view of how stories work, or (I think more likely) that they were not approaching the Bible purely as a collection of stories.

Would you disagree?

Do you think that specific religious community was atypical?

Comment author: GabeEisenstein 13 March 2011 01:30:04AM *  2 points [-]

There is a wide range of ways of interpreting mythic material, both between religious communities and between members of a single community.

In two of the three branches of American Judaism, as well as many varieties of Christianity and amalgams such as Unitarianism, not to mention Buddhism, etc., respect for science is encouraged--and thus the stories must be held to be stories, even if they are very special stories for the community. Such communities are radically different from those in which the Bible is treated as a source of scientific knowledge.

Nevertheless, there are communities in which the children literally believe in Santa Claus, while the adults know it's a myth. And there are countless other ways of mixing up more and less literal interpretations. The same parent who disbelieves Santa Claus may take the story of Jesus' resurrection literally. And a group of people can recite language together, which some of them treat metaphorically and others literally.

So the point isn't what is "typical", nor how a majority might have approached the text at a given point in history, it's that there are examples of religious thinking that are, for those who understand them, orthogonal to questions of fact. Historically this has often been reflected in the difference between exoteric and esoteric subtraditions. Those who know the "inner meaning" of the texts no longer treat them literally. Such esoteric subtraditions are far from a modern phenomenon, as Eliezer's argument would imply.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 13 March 2011 01:52:46AM 2 points [-]

I certainly agree that if I use as my reference class for religious communities and individuals only those which readily acknowledge the fictional/mythical/metaphorical nature of the language they recite and its orthogonality to questions of fact, I end up with prior probabilities for assertions about religious communities and individuals that are very very different from those the OP ends up with.

You seem to be further implying that there's some good reason to use that reference class, rather than the reference class of all communities and individuals that self-identify as religious, or the reference class of those that approach their texts and traditions non-metaphorically.

I'm not really sure how you are justifying that second claim.

By way of analogy -- I freely agree that, within the community of people who claim to be Jesus Christ, there exist individuals who are no more delusional than the average person and who are, for example, playing the lead in Jesus Christ: Superstar, or various other things along those lines.

But to challenge on that basis the idea that claiming to be Jesus Christ is indicative of being delusional, and to dismiss the question of how typical those examples really are of people claiming to be Jesus Christ as beside the point, is misleading to the point of simply being wrong.

Comment author: GabeEisenstein 13 March 2011 02:07:34AM 0 points [-]

I don't understand the claim you take to be unjustified, that there's a "good reason to use that reference class"--use it for what? My point is that there are valuable religious practices, yes. I distinguish them from the affirmation of supernatural beliefs, including the belief that one is Jesus or that the earth was created in 6 days. I am not challenging any assertions about the truth or falsity of any beliefs. Maybe my comments are out of line with the spirit of a website devoted to the rationality of beliefs, but it seems to me that some of you may hold a mistaken belief about the nature of religious language, namely that it primarily functions as a representation of beliefs.

If you are asking for me to justify my view that there are valuable religious practices, I don't think this is the place for it, so I'll just say that there are valuable works of philosophy written in the context of religion, and valuable insights about ethics and aesthetics that are sometimes transmitted in religious education (especially when they are only nominally related to the pronouncements of ancient texts).

Comment author: TheOtherDave 13 March 2011 02:21:58AM 2 points [-]

use it for what?

Use it for calibrating my expectations about a specific religious community in advance of further specific data... for example, about its likely influence on the cognitive habits of its members.

Anyway, I'm not challenging the claim that there exist valuable religious practices. I even agree with it.

Comment author: GabeEisenstein 13 March 2011 07:00:07PM 1 point [-]

The mixing of perspectives within a community (as I noted) makes your example problematic, but I agree that some easy cases exist: for example, a church that preaches "faith healing" for sick children may be expected to run into a specific set of difficulties, not shared by a church that tells everyone to reinterpret texts for themselves in the light of reason. And again, I agree that pronouncements of people claiming to be Jesus may be taken as indicators of delusionality. Both cases involve belief, whereas I claim that in religion, non-propositional linguistic behavior, is more significant than propositional (as regards unusual beliefs).

I'm waiting to see if anyone disagrees with my main assertions, that orthogonal-to-facts religion can be valuable, and that it is not a modern phenomenon.

Comment author: Desrtopa 13 March 2011 01:48:22AM 0 points [-]

This isn't really a post to be taken in isolation. I think you'll find some if not all of your objections are addressed throughout the rest of the antitheism posts.

Comment author: GabeEisenstein 13 March 2011 02:09:08AM 1 point [-]

I did not find that to be the case.

Comment author: deeb 16 July 2011 06:22:27PM 1 point [-]

I must agree with GabeEisenstein 100%. It is annoying to keep reading arguments against fundamentalist religion phrased as arguments "against religion".

I must also note that Gabe did not get any meaningful reply to his point "that orthogonal-to-facts religion can be valuable, and that it is not a modern phenomenon". He was told to "read all antitheism posts". Well, how about a link to a specific paragraph in a specific post that addresses the very specific issues he raised? Namely, why do people keep focussing on debunking fundamentalist religion (reinterpret the fossils, believe in talking snakes, etc.) and then pretend they have debunked "religion" or "theism", completely ignoring the deep intellectual history within religious thought dealing with exactly these questions? ("you concentrate on fundamentalist or other strange examples, never the work of thinkers like Buber, Merton, Campbell, Watts, [and].... Wittgenstein's views on religion, as found in his essay on Frazer's Golden Bough.") Where in the "antitheism posts" do I find a treatment of these aspects, and why is everything I come across always tailored to debunking fundamentalism instead of dealing with the questions that will crop up if you ignore the fundamentalists and talk to religionist philosphers who are actually intelligent? And even apart from points that may be covered in other posts which I have not seen, GabeEisenstein has pointed to a number of glaring flaws or mistakes in the current post standing on its own, which would merit some attention in themselves, first of all the implication that religious ethics has not evolved over the centuries, and that it'ts a choice between the Iron Age and atheism. That's a false dichotomy if I have ever seen one.

Comment author: Desrtopa 16 July 2011 09:46:55PM *  10 points [-]

The point is not that there's a dichotomy between Iron Age beliefs and atheism, but that moderate religious belief has its own issues.

If you allow yourself to identify with particular claims without regard to the actual evidence for them, you're liable to end up accepting ridiculous claims out of affiliation. Modes of thought are habit forming; if you insist on finding some way to interpret biblical passages that will allow you to continue to affiliate as Christian, for example, you're liable to also insist on finding ways to interpret data that will allow you to continue to affiliate as Liberal, Conservative, Libertarian or whatever, regardless of whether that interpretation is a rational response to the data. This can lead to anything from lost lives due to poorly considered legislation to getting yourself injured practicing bad martial arts techniques. Moderate theists rarely manage to sacrifice every factual belief attached to their religion required by actual deference to evidence, leading to positions like rejection of cryonics on the basis that it prevents access to the afterlife, or can't work because it won't preserve the soul. If they rejected every unsupported empirical claim, they wouldn't be able to preserve their affiliation.

Further, moderate theists, as much as fundamentalists if not more so, form beliefs which don't pay rent in anticipated experiences. This leads to fake understanding, and fake understanding cannot inform good decisions.

It's unclear how much epistemic harm is caused directly by moderate religion, but moderate religion as well as fundamentalism is killed off by the sort of epistemic hygiene necessary to consistently make sound decisions conditioned on evidence.

Comment author: lessdazed 23 July 2011 06:09:34AM 3 points [-]

It is annoying to keep reading arguments against fundamentalist religion phrased as arguments "against religion".

As it stands, no spot in the wallpaper must have an air bubble under it. But some spot in the wallpaper must have an air bubble under it.

It's hard to argue against flat-wallpaperism. Point out the ruin of its tenets, and people push the bubble elsewhere, and still claim the name "flat-wallpaperism" as if it were the same as the old belief. There's nothing wrong with showing the problems in flat-wallpaperism even though some individuals call themselves flat-wallpaperists and make idiosyncratic mistakes about what people believe and believed, starting with how other flat-wallpaperists view and would have viewed (for historical figures and previous generations of believers) their liberal "flat-wallpaperism".

religionist philosphers who are actually intelligent?

If they weren't at all intelligent, they wouldn't be dumber than the fundamentalists. They set their bottom line, confabulate and assault the English language by pretending with labels to a relationship with the past and other religious people they don't have,

"(Assuming the Bible is a valuable moral book, which upon reading should enhance our precommitment to liberal ideals), why is the Bible so valuable a moral book, despite its words, and how does reading it provide information that reaffirms liberal ideals?" is a question whose answer is poisoned by its false assumption as "(Assuming the Bible is a communication from a deity,) what is God trying to tell us with these words?"

many modern religious people explicitly treat the Bible as a literary background to rational reflections taking contemporary attitudes and insights into account

"Many modern religious people explicitly treat the Bible as a corocodilian wallaby to rational reflections taking contemporary attitudes and insights into account." There are some problems with the preceding sentence. One is that "corocodilian wallaby"" is not a good synonym for "literary background". The words are a lie. The other problem is quite similar, but it applies to the word "religious" as it is used in the crocodilian wallaby sentence and in the quoted sentence.

Comment author: MarkusRamikin 22 June 2011 07:29:50PM *  3 points [-]

Excellent article, I enjoyed it a lot.

One thing bothers me. What the hell are children told to persuade them to belief in a God, anyway? I don't remember what mine told me; I became atheist at the age of like 10 and even that is a very fuzzy memory. Basically I remember that as soon as non-belief became apparent to me as an option, belief has struck me as completely lacking in justification; a big unanswered "why" - all the more annoying because for some reason asking "why" was not considered reasonable among most people I talked to (other children and adults). I have very little memory of myself-as-believer, though I know I was one.

So is there some general data on what parents tell children to persuade them? I imagine it'll prove very silly, but I'm curious.

Comment author: drethelin 28 June 2011 07:23:48AM 4 points [-]

children don't need to persuaded very strongly to believe things adults tell them. It's their default state. So children of religious parents who hear their parents say, god created the world, god punishes sinners, etc. believe that until they are given reason NOT to. Other examples include things even more blatantly fake, like the tooth fairy and santa.

Comment author: MarkusRamikin 18 September 2011 09:17:42AM 3 points [-]

Yeah. I went to another community I post on and asked the resident theists what they told their children. The answers pretty much boiled down to "we tell them that God exists and Jesus loves them and they lap it up without question". That and getting them involved in the believing community/lifestyle. In restrospect, it shouldn't have been at all surprising.

Comment author: tenshiko 07 August 2011 02:53:27PM 0 points [-]

One of the core beliefs of Orthodox Judaism is that God appeared at Mount Sinai and said in a thundering voice, "Yeah, it's all true." From a Bayesian perspective that's some darned unambiguous evidence of a superhumanly powerful entity. (Albeit it doesn't prove that the entity is God per se, or that the entity is benevolent - it could be alien teenagers.)

I think this phrasing, particularly of the parenthetical portion, is a low-level but still present existential risk, because the temptation it creates for teenagers such as myself to actually say in the future "This is your god speaking" to an alien world is enormous. The potential negative consequences this could have on said alien world is astronomically enormous.

Comment author: Desrtopa 07 August 2011 03:21:03PM 2 points [-]

You didn't want to do that already?

Comment author: tenshiko 07 August 2011 03:42:42PM *  1 point [-]

The exact idea of "tell aliens that I am their god" would have, if it occurred to me before, been immediately recognized as juvenile and worse than pointless. But this phrasing, especially alien teenagers, plural, spins it again to me as something that would be "totally epic" and "all my friends would totally think it was awesome" and invokes vivid images of negotiating with them about who gets to be this theology's Jesus.

(Interestingly, I originally thought this was a reply to this comment when it appeared in my inbox, and was slightly disappointed to learn it was not.)

Comment author: undermind 19 September 2011 08:57:41PM 0 points [-]

Maintenance: The link in the opening sentence no longer exists.

Comment author: gjm 19 September 2011 09:21:13PM 0 points [-]

One acceptable substitute though Eliezer might want to choose a different one of the many translations offered by that site. (The particular one his original link used isn't available there, though.)

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 19 September 2011 09:27:18PM *  1 point [-]

Fixed using an internet archive copy. (Please PM me directly to notify of similar problems.)

Edit: Actually, it works just if we remove "www" from the link, but I'll leave the archive version as it's more likely to survive in future years.

Comment author: Bugmaster 04 October 2011 10:34:03PM 2 points [-]

...it could be alien teenagers.

+1 for that imagery alone. I'm still chuckling over that one.

Still, I think that there is a difference between ethics and all the other magisteria that the Christian religion was forced to shed: ethics is prescriptive, not descriptive. Thus, someone could claim, f.ex., "I have the right to keep slaves, my holy book says so, end of story", and you couldn't exactly dispute that (though you could stop him by force, hopefully). By contrast, if he said, "the Earth is flat, my holy book says so, end of story", all you have to do is show him some orbital photos, and you'd dispute his claim.

BTW, there are quite a few religions in the world; Christianity is not the only one. They all make all kinds of wacky claims, but some of them are quite a bit more progressive than Christianity, while others (f.ex. some flavors of Wicca and Buddhism) prescribe no moral/ethical judgements at all.

Comment author: Tasky 05 October 2011 08:01:49AM 1 point [-]

What happens however, if one simply goes at the very core of monotheism and states "God exists, created the Universe (by Big Bang if you like), from which life arose because he built the laws of physics that way. And he will someday end the universe and create a new one with only the souls he judges good." What part of that can one disprove exactly? I'm not saying it is a valid theory, it isn't exactly because it can't be disproven. I don't know you, but the christians I know don't use the bible as their strict code of ethics and don't believe in creationism. Of course one could substitute "Flying Spaghetti Monster" for "God" in the sentence above, but the fact remains that one can never disprove that a supernatural being exists.

This, for me, means that such an existence is orthogonal to reality, and therefore one might as well ignore it. For others it means, that they might as well believe in it.

Comment author: Tasky 05 October 2011 08:19:20AM 1 point [-]

Sorry for double post. Actually I did think about this again and I think there is a way to almost disprove what I said above.

I think what can and will be disproven is the idea of "Soul". Basically we already know about a lot of connections not only between brain and body function (like "which are is correlated to which operations") but we know some things about correlation brain-personality! (If you want a really good introduction on brain-mind correlations that is not overly technical, see "The Brain and the Inner World: An Introduction to the Neuroscience of Subjective Experience" by Marc Solms and Oliver Turnbull) So, first we have to ask us what scope the soul has. I think, that if the soul doesn't comprehend "personality", it is a totally useless concept. But then, on can disprove the existence of a soul distinct from the body: there are various cases of patients (the most notable, although probably not documented precisely enough is the one about Phineas Gage, 1823-1860) that due to damage in the brain (usually the frontal lobes) changed their personality in more or less dramatic ways.

So one definitely has (or will have, if more of those kind of findings pop up) to relinquish the idea of a soul-matter duality. And there you have your whole worldview crumbling down.

The only thing one could possibly believe in then, would be a god who created the universe. But if he isn't correlated to reality even after one's death or after the supposed apocalypse (what sense would that make if personality/soul was body-dependant?), then what difference does believing or not imply? and one definitely couldn't base morals or ethics on such an independent god...

Comment author: split_tilps 03 February 2012 07:14:02AM 0 points [-]

Very helpful. Although, I think a more accurate "something" would be control of who gets into that fanciful country club in the clouds with a perfect view of their "heathen" friends burning like crispy bacon strips. Ethics is already gone, the true core is fear-mongering, manipulation, and salvation. I hope exceptions to this exist but I've never encountered a western religion that didn't threaten, demand obedience, and promise me salvation in return.

Comment author: lukeprog 01 April 2012 03:26:29AM 9 points [-]

In case anyone is confused by the differences between Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Mormonism, I'll pass along this amusing comment:

Think of it like a movie. The Torah is the first one, and the New Testament is the sequel. Then the Qu'ran comes out, and it retcons the last one like it never happened. There's still Jesus, but he's not the main character anymore, and the messiah hasn't shown up yet.

Jews like the first movie but ignored the sequels, Christians think you need to watch the first two but the third movie doesn't count, Moslems think the third one was the best, and Mormons liked the second one so much they started writing fanfiction that doesn't fit with ANY of the series canon.

Comment author: AnEndlessStrategy 10 April 2012 03:15:23PM -1 points [-]

I fail to understand you. I recall a phrase you often use "What can be disproved by science should be," or something along those lines. But, aren't you just fooling yourself? Unlike the Harry Potter of your stories, the odds of you finding immortality in your lifetime is slim to none (and as you pointed out in the problem of fun, even that would ring false eventually). So tell me, why aren't you in abject despair over your fate? There's nothing you can do, and nothing you do makes a difference. On that premise, wouldn't you reason that it's pointless to even try? Furthermore, you are pushing this belief onto other people. Now, I know, I know, "What can be disproved by science should be," is probably your response. But even if you're not crying yourself to sleep, isn't it likely that someone else is? And if nothing makes a difference in the end, then why are you taking the hope away from these people's lives?

Comment author: TheOtherDave 10 April 2012 03:45:13PM 0 points [-]

Say I'm in a situation that sucks.
Say further I have an N1% chance of improving it by some marginal amount A1 by changing my environment, if I try. It will still suck, but it will suck less. And I have a (1-N1)% chance of failing to improve it, even if I try.
Say further I similarly have an N2% chance of improving it by A2 by altering my own thinking (for example, deluding myself).

If you believed (N2A2) < (N1A1), would you encourage me to (e.g.) delude myself, or to change my environment? Or would this depend on something else? (What?)

Comment author: taelor 16 April 2012 11:09:41AM 4 points [-]

Back in the old days, there was no concept of religion being a separate magisterium. The Old Testament is a stream-of-consciousness culture dump: history, law, moral parables, and yes, models of how the universe works. In not one single passage of the Old Testament will you find anyone talking about a transcendent wonder at the complexity of the universe. But you will find plenty of scientific claims, like the universe being created in six days (which is a metaphor for the Big Bang), or rabbits chewing their cud. (Which is a metaphor for...)

As far as glaring scientific errors regarding rabbits, saying that they chew their cud is relatively mild. At one point, there was a tradition in medieval Japanese folk Buddhism claiming that rabbits were actually birds, that their ears were actually wings (or in some sources, feathers), and that they "flew" by hopping. This was all apparently meant to circumvent dietary restrictions that prohibited eating of mammals but allowed for poultry. As a result of all this, the Japanese language uses the same counter word for both birds and rabbits.

Comment author: r_claypool 27 May 2012 03:02:06AM *  1 point [-]

The Old Testament [...] was busy laying down the death penalty for women who wore men's clothing

But Deuteronomy 22:5 says nothing about the death penalty. It's just an abomination, which presumably means, "You're going to hell, but we won't necessarily stone you."

A better argument would be, "The Old Testament [...] was busy laying down the death penalty for victims of rape."

"If there be a damsel that is a virgin betrothed unto a husband, and a man find her in the city, and lie with her; then ye shall bring them both out unto the gate of that city, and ye shall stone them to death with stones; the damsel, because she cried not, being in the city; and the man, because he hath humbled his neighbor's wife: so thou shalt put away the evil from the midst of thee." -- Deuteronomy 22:23-24, ASV

I guess they thought it unlikely that the girl tried to scream or that she was threatened with immediate violence. And if she's not already engaged (28-29), she is forced to marry her rapist without the possibility of divorce.