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Avoiding Your Belief's Real Weak Points

50 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 05 October 2007 01:59AM

A few years back, my great-grandmother died, in her nineties, after a long, slow, and cruel disintegration.  I never knew her as a person, but in my distant childhood, she cooked for her family; I remember her gefilte fish, and her face, and that she was kind to me.  At her funeral, my grand-uncle, who had taken care of her for years, spoke:  He said, choking back tears, that God had called back his mother piece by piece: her memory, and her speech, and then finally her smile; and that when God finally took her smile, he knew it wouldn't be long before she died, because it meant that she was almost entirely gone.

I heard this and was puzzled, because it was an unthinkably horrible thing to happen to anyone, and therefore I would not have expected my grand-uncle to attribute it to God.  Usually, a Jew would somehow just-not-think-about the logical implication that God had permitted a tragedy.  According to Jewish theology, God continually sustains the universe and chooses every event in it; but ordinarily, drawing logical implications from this belief is reserved for happier occasions.  By saying "God did it!" only when you've been blessed with a baby girl, and just-not-thinking "God did it!" for miscarriages and stillbirths and crib deaths, you can build up quite a lopsided picture of your God's benevolent personality.

Hence I was surprised to hear my grand-uncle attributing the slow disintegration of his mother to a deliberate, strategically planned act of God. It violated the rules of religious self-deception as I understood them.

If I had noticed my own confusion, I could have made a successful surprising prediction.  Not long afterward, my grand-uncle left the Jewish religion.  (The only member of my extended family besides myself to do so, as far as I know.)

Modern Orthodox Judaism is like no other religion I have ever heard of, and I don't know how to describe it to anyone who hasn't been forced to study Mishna and Gemara.  There is a tradition of questioning, but the kind of questioning...  It would not be at all surprising to hear a rabbi, in his weekly sermon, point out the conflict between the seven days of creation and the 13.7 billion years since the Big Bang—because he thought he had a really clever explanation for it, involving three other Biblical references, a Midrash, and a half-understood article in Scientific American.  In Orthodox Judaism you're allowed to notice inconsistencies and contradictions, but only for purposes of explaining them away, and whoever comes up with the most complicated explanation gets a prize.

There is a tradition of inquiry.  But you only attack targets for purposes of defending them.  You only attack targets you know you can defend.

In Modern Orthodox Judaism I have not heard much emphasis of the virtues of blind faith.  You're allowed to doubt.  You're just not allowed to successfully doubt.

I expect that the vast majority of educated Orthodox Jews have questioned their faith at some point in their lives.  But the questioning probably went something like this:  "According to the skeptics, the Torah says that the universe was created in seven days, which is not scientifically accurate.  But would the original tribespeople of Israel, gathered at Mount Sinai, have been able to understand the scientific truth, even if it had been presented to them?  Did they even have a word for 'billion'?  It's easier to see the seven-days story as a metaphor—first God created light, which represents the Big Bang..."

Is this the weakest point at which to attack one's own Judaism?  Read a bit further on in the Torah, and you can find God killing the first-born male children of Egypt to convince an unelected Pharaoh to release slaves who logically could have been teleported out of the country.  An Orthodox Jew is most certainly familiar with this episode, because they are supposed to read through the entire Torah in synagogue once per year, and this event has an associated major holiday.  The name "Passover" ("Pesach") comes from God passing over the Jewish households while killing every male firstborn in Egypt.

Modern Orthodox Jews are, by and large, kind and civilized people; far more civilized than the several editors of the Old Testament.  Even the old rabbis were more civilized.  There's a ritual in the Seder where you take ten drops of wine from your cup, one drop for each of the Ten Plagues, to emphasize the suffering of the Egyptians.  (Of course, you're supposed to be sympathetic to the suffering of the Egyptians, but not so sympathetic that you stand up and say, "This is not right!  It is wrong to do such a thing!")  It shows an interesting contrast—the rabbis were sufficiently kinder than the compilers of the Old Testament that they saw the harshness of the Plagues.  But Science was weaker in these days, and so rabbis could ponder the more unpleasant aspects of Scripture without fearing that it would break their faith entirely.

You don't even ask whether the incident reflects poorly on God, so there's no need to quickly blurt out "The ways of God are mysterious!" or "We're not wise enough to question God's decisions!" or "Murdering babies is okay when God does it!"  That part of the question is just-not-thought-about.

The reason that educated religious people stay religious, I suspect, is that when they doubt, they are subconsciously very careful to attack their own beliefs only at the strongest points—places where they know they can defend.  Moreover, places where rehearsing the standard defense will feel strengthening.

It probably feels really good, for example, to rehearse one's prescripted defense for "Doesn't Science say that the universe is just meaningless atoms bopping around?", because it confirms the meaning of the universe and how it flows from God, etc..  Much more comfortable to think about than an illiterate Egyptian mother wailing over the crib of her slaughtered son.  Anyone who spontaneously thinks about the latter, when questioning their faith in Judaism, is really questioning it, and is probably not going to stay Jewish much longer.

My point here is not just to beat up on Orthodox Judaism.  I'm sure that there's some reply or other for the Slaying of the Firstborn, and probably a dozen of them.  My point is that, when it comes to spontaneous self-questioning, one is much more likely to spontaneously self-attack strong points with comforting replies to rehearse, then to spontaneously self-attack the weakest, most vulnerable points.  Similarly, one is likely to stop at the first reply and be comforted, rather than further criticizing the reply.  A better title than "Avoiding Your Belief's Real Weak Points" would be "Not Spontaneously Thinking About Your Belief's Most Painful Weaknesses".

More than anything, the grip of religion is sustained by people just-not-thinking-about the real weak points of their religion.  I don't think this is a matter of training, but a matter of instinct.  People don't think about the real weak points of their beliefs for the same reason they don't touch an oven's red-hot burners; it's painful.

To do better:  When you're doubting one of your most cherished beliefs, close your eyes, empty your mind, grit your teeth, and deliberately think about whatever hurts the most.  Don't rehearse standard objections whose standard counters would make you feel better.  Ask yourself what smart people who disagree would say to your first reply, and your second reply.  Whenever you catch yourself flinching away from an objection you fleetingly thought of, drag it out into the forefront of your mind.  Punch yourself in the solar plexus.  Stick a knife in your heart, and wiggle to widen the hole.  In the face of the pain, rehearse only this:

What is true is already so.
Owning up to it doesn't make it worse.
Not being open about it doesn't make it go away.
And because it's true, it is what is there to be interacted with.
Anything untrue isn't there to be lived.
People can stand what is true,
for they are already enduring it.
Eugene Gendlin


Part of the Against Rationalization subsequence of How To Actually Change Your Mind

Next post: "Motivated Stopping and Motivated Continuation"

Previous post: "A Rational Argument"

Comments (205)

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Comment author: Douglas_Knight2 05 October 2007 03:04:41AM 0 points [-]

Science was weaker in these days

Could you elaborate on this? What do you mean by Science? (reasoning? knowledge?)

The thing whose weakness seems relevant to me is a cultural tradition of doubting religion. Also, prerequisites which I have trouble articulating because they are so deeply buried: perhaps a changing notion of benevolence.

Comment author: Danfly 09 April 2012 05:18:45PM 3 points [-]

I'll take a wild stab in the dark and say that he probably meant that the method of reasoning was not as sophisticated back then. You could call the Aristotelean method of reasoning from empirical observation a "strengthening" of science. Nevertheless you could still say that "science" was much weaker back then compared to Popper's critical rationalism, with its emphasis on falsification.

Nevertheless, I'm sure I will be informed if this interpretation is wrong, which will hopefully help me be less wrong in the future.

Comment author: TGGP4 05 October 2007 05:10:35AM 8 points [-]

That doesn't describe me at all. I was a full-bore Fred Phelps-style ultracalvinist (only an apathetic quietist rather than an activist). I was proud that my faith was so pure I could fully admit that God does this or that thing we find abhorrent because we are so pitiful in comparison to Him and His Plan that the very idea of questioning His Wisdom is laughable. I would say "You cannot question the goodness of His actions because there was no good before God defined it, whatever God does is good by virtue of His doing it and when you say one his actions is "bad" it is only a reflection of your complete inability to know what good is in comparison to Him". I believed in evolution and like you knew the importance of not having a human-centered perception of the world. God was not merely not a 20th century American, he was not human, was not of this planet or even of this universe. He was utterly incomprehensible, and what we did know of Him was only what he had chosen to let us (whose significance in His Plan we cannot know) hear, which left room for a dishonest and misleading approach to us (though we were to think of it as being as benevolent as a parent telling their children, mentally challenged ones at that, about Santa and the Tooth Fairy). I discussed that phase of my belief here, noted one of the contradictions in my God-conception here at Gene Expression and mentioned the resemblance of the deity I was supposed to revere to H.P. Lovecraft's Azathoth here.

Comment author: Tiiba2 05 October 2007 05:25:53AM 3 points [-]

I know it's not entirely on topic, but biblical physics seems like a more important test of the Bible's truth than God's morality. If God does not follow the arbitrary laws of human society, what does that prove? Nor does the Bible wrongly saying that God is merciful mean much - what would you do if you were God and had to write a book? But if the Bible accurately states the age of the Universe, that's something. In the end, the only important issue is whether you're going to hell or heaven.

I actually think it's rather irrational for someone to think that God's cruelty is an argument against His existence, and this seems a common opinion among atheists. I mean, I believe in Stalin, who also claimed to be a milkmaid's best friend while executing anyone who looked at him funny.

Comment author: robirahman 15 January 2016 04:53:56PM 1 point [-]

I don't think God's cruelty in the Bible is evidence that there isn't any god, but it is evidence against the benevolent, omniscient, personal, omnipotent kind of theism that Christians and Jews would argue for.

Comment author: Lumifer 15 January 2016 06:14:52PM 3 points [-]

Out of the list of adjectives it's evidence only against the "benevolent" part and that's really just the old problem of theodicy (why does God permit evil).

Comment author: Jiro 15 January 2016 09:19:57PM 1 point [-]

If he isn't omniscient or omnipotent, then it could be some of the bad things he does are the most benevolent that he could do given his limited abilities.

Comment author: Psychohistorian2 05 October 2007 06:09:22AM 4 points [-]

Tiiba: Because it is very hard to read ambiguity into moral acts. One can say that six days is not meant literally (even if the original language says that - though I'm not saying it does; I don't know). One cannot say that the firstborn of Egypt were all just sleeping.

Furthermore, one cannot explain away deception. Maybe God actually made the Universe in six days but wants us to think it was longer to test our faith. Yes, that's a lousy argument, but one might conceive of it being true. As for other offenses, God makes the laws of physics, so he obeys them at his whim.

By contrast, an action making God appear evil necessarily makes him incomprehensible for many religions. If you say that God is good, and that he slaughtered innocent children, and you believe that such a slaughter is wrong, then any defense of God must change the meaning of "God is good" to something completely unrecognizable. Either good is true of God by definition (What He does is good) or it is the "big plan" strategy, in which case it is actually good but you are too stupid to understand why, meaning he is good in a way that we necessarily cannot understand.

So, to end this rambling, people pick moral attacks because they don't allow the "Well, it's obviously false, therefore, it isn't meant literally!" defense. It also attacks concepts of God on a somewhat different level.

Comment author: Vamair0 11 January 2017 06:51:37AM *  1 point [-]

If there is a heaven and the killed firstborn went there, then killing them (or anyone else, for that matter) is quite harmless. And killing is wrong for people not because it causes harm, but because God forbids it. It's a strange view, but not an obviously inconsistent one. On the other hand I've always shied away from moral attacks just because the counterargument of "So, God's not benevolent, now what? You still had to worship it for a few decades or you are going to literally burn for eternity" seemed so obvious. Like it seems pointless to argue that Dumbledore is evil when you're trying to prove he never existed.

Comment author: CaosSorge 31 May 2017 06:50:33AM 0 points [-]

But if somebody is willing to admit that their respective bible or holy book lied about their God being benevolent, that should raise the probability that other parts of their book lied as well. Most of all, unlike everything else that it has been pointed out was inaccurate in the bible, that one cannot be explained by saying it was a metaphor. It would be something it could not be denied was either a severe exaggeration or a lie. That starts touching on uncomfortable territory for most theists because they have admitted part of their 'side' is flawed.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 05 October 2007 06:30:34AM 4 points [-]

TGGP, different people will rehearse different defenses, depending on what they think is strong - what they genuinely don't anticipate being called on, at least by themselves. You're an atheist now, so there was probably something you didn't think about, in the corner of your mind, which you can think about now. What was it?

Comment author: GreedyAlgorithm 05 October 2007 07:38:00AM 1 point [-]

Ha, this just happened to me. Luckily it wasn't too painful because I knew the weakness existed, I avoided it, and then reading E. T. Jaynes' "Probability Theory: The Logic of Science" gave me a different and much better belief to patch up my old one. Also, thanks for that recommendation. A lot.

For a while I had been what I called a Bayesian because I thought the frequentist position was incoherent and the Bayesian position elegant. But I couldn't resolve to my satisfaction the problem of scale parameters. I read that there was a prior that was invariant with respect to them but something kept bothering me.

It turns out that my intuition of probability was still "there is a magic number I call probability inherent in objects and what they might do". So when I saw the question "What is the probability that a glass has water:wine in a ratio of 1.5:1 or less, given that it has water:wine in a ratio between 1:1 and 2:1?" I was still thinking something along the lines of "Well, consider all possible glasses of watered wine, and maybe weight them in some way, and I'll get a probability..."

Jaynes has convinced me that the right way to think about probability is plausibility of situations given states of knowledge. There's nothing wrong with insisting that a prior be set up for any given problem; it's incoherent to set up a problem _without_ looking at the priors. They aren't just useful, they're necessary, and anyone who says it's cheating to push the difficulty of an inductive reasoning problem onto the difficulty of determining real-world priors can be dismissed.

If only I'd asked around about this problem before, maybe I would have discovered meta-Jaynes earlier! Speaking of that, why haven't I seen his stuff or things building on it before? I feel like saying that 99% of people miss its importance says more about my importance assignment than their seeming apathy.

Comment author: g 05 October 2007 08:54:56AM 0 points [-]

Tiiba: Also, most religions *define* God as being supremely good; evidence against the existence of a supremely good god is evidence against those religions even though it's consistent with some other religions almost no one believes in. To get from there to positive "I have good reason to believe there is no god of any sort" atheism requires further work, but if your only reason for believing in God in the first place was tied to a particular religion, and since observationally that's true of the great majority of theists (which suggests, for agreement-theorem-ish reasons, that maybe all the best reasons for believing in God have that characteristic) it provides grounds for not positively believing in God any more.

Comment author: jeff_gray2 05 October 2007 09:25:34AM 2 points [-]

People don't think about the real weak points of their beliefs for the same reason they don't touch an oven's red-hot burners; it's painful.

Eliezer, unless I missed the analogy, people gloss the weak points to avoid finding themselves in error and avoid the pain of getting 'burned' by woeful ignorance. Perhaps I give humanity too much credit, but I think this is not the primary disincentive for most religious people. Laziness & Apathy are the first stage, where most people drop any thoughts they had of re-evalutating 'their' beliefs.

I observed this tendency in 13 years of private christian school, and at many churches (and I still love my parents...) As soon as people started to think about big problems, like the problem of evil, it became clear that they weren't going to be able to solve it by dinner-time. Since New Testament theology is strewn with paradoxes, most people seemed to merely accept doctrine as a super-strength version of 'Belief as Attire.' For some reason, something didn't click in my brain, b/c though I belonged to the group, I enjoyed exploring heterodox interpretations and other non-sanctioned ideas which unsettled the 'conventional' others.

Anyway, to actually examine the weak points of a religion like christianity or judaism is a huge project for one inside their system. I thought that I would have to master philosophy, logic, ancient languages, theology, and become a lay expert on physics and evolutionary biology in order to square the sacred text with the Life.

Belonging to a religion allows a person to let others do their thinking and believing for them, and that is the real problem. If all christians were Kierkegaards it would be a different situation (and I suppose if all Jews were Spinoza).

I guess I agree w/ Eliezer, I just think most people lie down once they realize the effort it will take to reach the next stage where you 'face-the-pain'.

And the thing that I didn't think about, being indoctrinated from the beginning, was that perhaps the bible wasn't/couldn't be inerrant; the perfect word of god. (Scary to think that there could be such relevant doubts that didn't even register!)

Comment author: jonvon 05 October 2007 02:16:24PM 6 points [-]

here here, living out what is not true is much more painful - and not just in the long run. it is more painful every day.

i grew up a christian. there is a parable about a man who gives up everything he has in order to find the "pearl of great price" which he knows is buried in a field. so he sells everything to buy the field, and then he is able to legally dig up the treasure. in other words he's done the work and has the right to the reward. i know this will sound crazy to most christians, but giving up christianity was my way of selling everything i had to find the pearl of great price.

Comment author: AndyCossyleon 08 September 2010 02:31:49PM 5 points [-]


This is how I felt as well, that my personal discovery of atheism was merely the next step in my life having been raised as a Christian. Losing religion and coming clean about it was the test of my integrity, which was formed under the wing of the Bible and Christianity.

Comment author: waveman 22 March 2011 10:17:02AM *  3 points [-]

giving up Christianity was my way of selling everything i had to find the pearl of great price

It's very hard to do. I gave up Christianity 39 years ago and I'm still finding large chunks of it floating around in my brain. This was the point of "God is dead" - people no longer believed in God but unconsciously carry on as if it were still true.

Comment author: Silas 05 October 2007 05:06:20PM -1 points [-]

Eliezer_Yudkowsky: This seems to contradict your previous trivialization of the "9/11 hijackers are cowardly" claim. If indeed probing our beliefs at their weak points is painful, backing away from this is a sign of cowardice. Blowing yourself up in an attempt to kill off the people who disagree with you, instead of intellectually confronting this, and exposing yourself to that pain of being wrong, is indeed cowardly, even if you are sacrificing something precious in the process.

Americans may feel unjustifiably comfortable in retreating to "9/11 terrorists were cowards". They may endorse this purely because of pro-American bias. However, the claim is fundamentally correct, even if people support it for the wrong reasons.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 05 October 2007 05:21:14PM 4 points [-]

Silas: Ah, so the US soldiers in Iraq are cowards because they shoot people instead of arguing intellectually with them?

Rationality is not the default state of a human being. It requires an effort just to get a human mind to the point where it perceives a scary duty of argument. I have no evidence that the 9/11 attackers got to this point, so I have no evidence that they were scared enough to be intellectual cowards.

Comment author: TGGP4 05 October 2007 05:34:48PM 3 points [-]

I suppose in some sense I had not been a believer for some time, but my history of being a Christian had put in me a desire to be one whether or not I actually thought it was true. Like many youngsters I had started out with a primitive God-concept of the kindly old man in the sky variety who watches over us and occasionally intervenes sometimes. As I grew older and wiser I made omniscience, predeterminism and so on a more important part, so that God was now the inactive clock-maker (which seemed logical to me). The nature of God came to be shaped by what I knew about the world rather than my view of the nature of the world being affected by my concept of God. God was essentially out of the picture and the only justification I had for including him was the prime-mover argument (which I would now say brings in a conclusion inferior to maximum entropy). It wasn't that long ago I first announced to anyone else I had stopped believing, and still haven't told those I know personally. As I mention in the link, it was reading people like the folks at gnxp that pushed me over the edge. I was able to read them and take what they said seriously because, as I mentioned, I didn't feel my faith was threatened. There were occasional mentions of Bayesianism, but it was mostly the notion of belief as a probabilistic guess based on evidence that got through to me. I wanted to have a more accurate view of the world and tried to adopt that standard of belief. I also knew about how most people's religious beliefs (I did not initially think to include my own in that category) were not grounded in evidence, but group membership/arguments from authority and flawed intuition/heuristics. Eventually those concepts collided and I decided to consciously evaluate whether the evidence really suggested the existence of the judeochristian God. My conclusion was no and I had not really thought the evidence suggested it for some time but had a "preference over belief". Once I admitted I didn't actually believe I couldn't make myself believe anymore whether or not I had that preference. Can anyone honestly say "I believe this even though it isn't actually the case"? I can't really think of any killer argument against God I hadn't considered though.

Comment author: Pseudonymous2 05 October 2007 05:42:22PM 9 points [-]

To do better find someone smart who disagrees with you. He'll do a much better job of questioning your beliefs than you ever will.

Better still, find many such people.

Comment author: Arandur 01 August 2011 12:51:13AM 7 points [-]

That would be why I'm here. :3

Comment author: AnneC 06 October 2007 12:31:58AM 3 points [-]

When you're doubting one of your most cherished beliefs, close your eyes, empty your mind, grit your teeth, and deliberately think about whatever hurts the most.

This is good advice.

I started doing this around 9 years ago, because at the end of adolescence I experienced a sudden "mortality awareness". I imagine this is probably common -- that is, many people probably experience a moment in their life when the fact that they, too, are getting older, comes into sharp relief. But in my observation, most people seem to respond to this moment by saying, "Oh well, I'm just not going to think about that". I couldn't not think about it, though. I was already an atheist at this point, but when I was 20 I still hadn't come up with much of an approach for thinking about how to live my life in full awareness of biological vulnerability. So I forced myself to imagine becoming very old and sick, to imagine contracting cancer, to imagine every single worst-case scenario that would lead to pain and death (not just mine, but that of my family, etc., as well).

I didn't mention this to very many people, but those I did seemed to think it was "unhealthy", and that I was exhibiting a kind of OCD-like obsession with doom. But it was a phase I needed to go through, so that I could process the worst-that-could-happen without just reacting emotionally to it. It isn't that I'm "fine" now with the idea of horrible things happening -- of course I would like to avoid them -- but that I don't think that "not thinking about horrible things" is an effective means of avoiding them. I figure that (a) there are some things that could very well happen regardless of what I do or how I think, and (b) I am more likely to come up with an effective strategy for avoiding something bad if I don't hide from thoughts about that bad thing.

Also, after processing the "worst case scenarios" I thought up, I came to realize that even if every bad thing I can imagine happens at some point, life is still infinitely worth living in the meantime -- this is especially pertinent in how I try to approach the subject of life extension, because I think it would lead to damaging bias (e.g., overconfidence with regard to the development of effective biotech solutions for radical longevity in my lifetime) if I were to make my ability to live without despair contingent upon achieving this longevity.

Comment author: Benoit_Essiambre 06 October 2007 03:45:59AM 0 points [-]

I call myself an atheist. However, I actually think believing in a vague god is based on probabilisticly rational and bayesian kind of thinking, at least for the limited context humans live in.

I say 'vague god' because I believe most people who believe there is a god and have somewhat solid arguments supporting this fact often use fallaciously the wrong level of conceptual abstraction to support their _own_ specific god. The word god is not very well defined and there is quite a large margin around the definition to play with. I find the best arguments, like the prime-mover or entropy argument, are bayesian in a certain context but even where they make sense, they prove nothing but a very vague god. Theists have a very annoying tendency to use these arguments, which in reality, only support the fact that there is 'something' that somewhat fits the definition of "god" (in that it is a creator) that is complex enough to have 'created' the universe (assuming the concept of 'creation' makes sense outside the universe), or at least something which created the thermodynamic order found in the universe. There is never any good evidence for the specific gods, only for some vague god that is probably more similar to a physical phenomenon like the big bang than to the gods of religious literature.

Now why do I think the vague gods are, in some sense, rational ? It came to me while I was thinking about bayesian probabilities, while reading Jaynes book. In most problems, propability is conditioned on some variable I, representing general contextual knowledge. The equations often take the form of P(H|O,I) which represents the probability of an hypothesis H knowing some observations O and other more general facts 'I'. Jaynes never said much about 'I' except that it is whatever else we know about the problem. I like to think of 'I' as a sort of low enthropy bounded context. I sometimes call it the 'contextual urn' because probability texts often idealise this information into an urn. The contextual urn need not have a hard boundary like a real urn, its bounds can be empty space as distance itself or even time can isolate things in the universe. (As an aside, I think studying how we recognise these contexts and their bounds could explain a lot about how we reason and how to make predictions about the universe. It is a hole in probability theory which needs to be understood before we can build Jaynes rational robot) 'I' is some recognisable context that allows us to make predictions. The fact that it is recognisable means it has properties that we have seen before. The contextual urn defines a sitation, a spacio-temporal region, that is low entropy enough to be recognisable and that repeats itself often enough that we can learn things about it.

The next thing I noticed about the relationship between 'I', 'O' and H is that we can kind of view 'I' and O as a cause of H and effects seem never to be more complex than their causes. This is particularly true about creation as far as we can take a creator and his creation to be a cause and effect (Which philosophers like Hume accepted). Taking an information theoretic perspective, if something can create someting else, it contains all the information to create it and probably more. It is at least as complex entropically as the thing it creates. Humans have always lived in a world where this was true almost all the time and hence it is perfectly reasonable for them to deduce using bayesian reasoning that's how things pretty much always work. It is not hard to see then that living organisma, humans or even the universe in general contain a great amount of complexity and there has to be something even more complex which created them. e.g. god.

If we look further than our immediate existence, we find out that it is not always true that a cause is more complex than its effect. Because of random variations, an effect is not very probable to be more complex than its cause but _it CAN happen_ sometimes. And as a result of natural selection, it is possible for the complexity of populations of effects to increase given a bias which makes the more complex survive more than the less.

Evolution is not something that happens in the time-scale of a human life therefore it is not very useful to us. We thus have evolved and rationally learned during our lifetime that effects are probably _always_ less complex than their causes. And in the context of a relatively short life span this is right!

We have to look at a wider timespan to see that there is actually another way for complexity to arise and that it explains the complexity we observe much better than the gods of religions. This is of course the theory of evolution.

I think this explains why theists feel so threatened by evolution. It's because it is the only good alternative for the creation of complexity. And although most people don't understand the principles of entropy and thermodynamics, most people's innate Bayesian reasoning leads them to the right conclusions: When they see the alternative explaining the creation of complexity and when they see how well the theory of evolution fits historical evidence, their last argument for the belief in god vaporises.

Comment author: Nick_Tarleton 06 October 2007 04:23:02AM 0 points [-]

Benoit: The universe may actually contain almost no information despite looking complex, just like (say) pi or e.

Anne: I love your comment. In Buddhism (as I understand), it is recommended to meditate every day on your death and the deaths of your loved ones, so you can consider the possibility without going crazy. I always thought that sounded like a good idea.

Comment author: AnneC 06 October 2007 06:07:57AM 1 point [-]

Nick: I'm not a Buddhist (definitely can't grok the reincarnation stuff), but in a lot of ways I can see where the Buddhists are coming from, especially with regard to "letting go of attachments".

Comment author: Benoit_Essiambre 06 October 2007 02:28:28PM 0 points [-]

I dunno Nick, your link implies the 'multiple universes' interpretation of quantum theory, and like Jaynes and Einstein, I tend to disagree with this interpretation. But yeah, I'm sure there exists some kind of physical explanation that when written down is more similar to a scientific article than a religious text. We just don't know it yet.

Comment author: waveman 22 March 2011 10:12:35AM 0 points [-]

multiple universes... I'm sure there exists some kind of physical explanation

It is well explained in "Quantum Mechanics and Experience" by David Z. Albert.

Essential the many worlds theory works like this (on one interpretation):

There is really one universe. It is the deterministic world of the wave function. Our apparent universe is actually just a projection of that deterministic wave function. There is no collapse of the wave function, it just seems like there is, due to decoherence.

If you imaging a movie screen showing two different stories at once, there is just one movie, but each of the characters in each story behave as if they are aware of their story. In our world, decoherence is what creates the multiple stories.

At least one survey of physicists found MW was the most popular interpretation of QM; at worst it is mainstream.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 06 October 2007 04:40:42PM 2 points [-]

Many-worlds was invented by Everett in 1957. Einstein died in 1955. Einstein and Jaynes both disapproved of the Copenhagen interpretation - I have no evidence that either ever considered many-worlds or even heard of it. Both of them objected to inherent randomness, and MWI gets rid of this.

Comment author: ksvanhorn 18 January 2011 04:42:48AM 4 points [-]

??? Jaynes died in 1998. It strains credulity to imagine that he wouldn't have been aware of the MWI.

Comment author: Benoit_Essiambre 06 October 2007 06:53:55PM 0 points [-]

I see, that's is not how I had understood it. I guess I should just leave this stuff to physicists.

Comment author: Benoit_Essiambre 06 October 2007 07:18:53PM 2 points [-]

But Eliezer, Wikipedia says about the Copenhagen interpretation:

Aage Petersen paraphrasing Niels Bohr: "There is no quantum world. There is only an abstract physical description. It is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out how nature is. Physics concerns what we can say about nature."here is no quantum world. There is only an abstract physical description. It is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out how nature is. Physics concerns what we can say about nature."

Doesn't this imply that Bohr didn't believe in inherent randomness but in randomness in the "description"? This seems like the same position as Jaynes and Einstein to me. Is Wikipedia wrong here? What am I missing???

Comment author: buybuydandavis 28 September 2011 01:10:33AM *  4 points [-]

In one of Jayne's paper's, he discusses how Bohr relentlessly talked only on the epistemological level, which many of Bohr's interpreters mistook for the ontological level.

It was the Clearing up Mysteries paper, section Confrontation or Reconciliation. http://bayes.wustl.edu/etj/articles/cmystery.pdf

So to answer your question, Bohr believed in randomness in the description, and didn't speak of inherent anything - didn't speak on the ontological level.

Comment author: lessdazed 28 September 2011 01:42:39AM 0 points [-]

The papers of his hosted there, are those all of his papers?

Comment author: buybuydandavis 29 September 2011 11:22:35AM 1 point [-]

If you go to the top level address http://bayes.wustl.edu/

You can navigate down to everything available on Jaynes, plus papers from a lot of other folks.

You can probably get the original draft of his magnum opus as latex or .pdf files somewhere in the web as well, although it was removed from that site once the book was published. It includes chapters that weren't published in the book.

Comment author: W 08 October 2007 04:04:22PM 4 points [-]

Biblical literalism is a relatively new phenomenon, and mostly a Christian one. Jewish (and many Christian) theologians have for many, many centuries regarded such things as the seven-days, two-parents creation story as myths. The questions isn't whether the mythology is true in the sense that science is true; of course it isn't. The question is whether what the mythology is intended to communicate is true.

The moral offense that moderns tend to find in the story of the killing of Egypt's firstborn is rooted in our individualist morality. The ancient view was that every member of the tribe was to some extend morally responsible for the tribe as a whole. When the pharoah offended, all of Egypt suffered, just as later all of Israel would suffer for the offenses of idolators and such.

I suspect that collective morality on that scale is quite alien to most of us, but it's fundamental for understanding the biblical worldview. But still we might ask, for instance, Are all Americans to some extent to blame for Iraq, or is blame restricted to the formal government and chain of command, or to those who voted for Bush, or to those who voted for Bush and those who didn't vote at all, or ...?

Comment author: Belkar15 07 December 2010 09:18:28AM *  4 points [-]

Truly there is no moral or scientific evidence to the existence, or nonexistence of the Jewish god (which is not the same as the Christian god; I have not thoroughly studied that one yet, so I cannot make assumptions upon it). The god, as a non-material being that is not confined to space or time, cannot be properly defined by humans, especially when Jewish texts, and more importantly Masoret (tradition; more accurately inherited information not by means of writings), give us very little information about god (bear with me here, I know this is a bit abstract). That is why all scientific definitions of god are so vague. No one has ever bothered to tell us (I mean religious Jews) what god is, and quite frankly, it does not matter. What matters in Judaism is not the Belief in god, but the Law (Belief is, of course a basis to that Law, but if we take into account that god cannot be proven or dis-proven, that if it were the case, it would have been done, belief becomes less critical). In Israel, for example, 90% of Jews believe in the Jewish god, but only one-third of them follow Jewish law (that is, Orthodox Judaism). The rest keep some of the laws, like Shabbat, or Kashrut, but only those they choose, and they may change their opinions many times. This is because, Judaism is not belief, rather it is "kabalat ol malkhut shamaim" (קבלת עול מלכות שמים) (roughly=Acceptance of the Burden of the Kinghood of God). Those who are religious not only believe in god, they accept a long list of rules, rules that guide their society, way of thinking, and morality.

In WWII, near the end of the Pacific Campaign, two speeches were made. One by Eleanor Roosevelt, and one by Hideki Tōjō. Each of them spoke, to their people, of why the campaign was necessary, why they should continue their support.

Roosevelt’s speech went something like “A glass of milk for every child”, while Tōjō reminded the people that despite the many losses, they were fighting to “preserve the honor of the Emperor” and that theirs was a noble sacrifice. We see here two totally different values: On the one hand, the needs of the people, on the other hand, the honor of the Emperor. These values were used to convince people of opposite justifications: The American, and the Japanese.

The amazing thing is that these speeches worked. The Japanese truly believed in the honor of the Emperor as a principle worth dying for, while the Americans truly believed in “the needs of the people” as a principle worth dying for.

If, say, an American said to a Japanese man and said to him: “But what of the starving children?” He would answer “Who cares! What of my dishonored Emperor?” People choose their principles, not by using logic, but rather base their logic on their highest principles, and from them glean new, sub-principles.

In short, so long as your religion does not give you science to learn (which will undoubtedly be disproved and proved again through the ages), but principles to follow, the only reason for you to leave that religion would be that you do not hold those as your highest principles, and therefore it is only a matter of time before those principles clash with your highest principles.

The reason one does not believe, is that he believes differently.
Comment author: buybuydandavis 28 September 2011 12:49:33AM 0 points [-]

This brings up a point that has become clear to me - religion is to be attacked not on truth grounds, but on specific moral grounds, as concretely and personally as possible.

And yes, denial and evasion is the root of almost all crazy.

Comment author: Spectral_Dragon 14 February 2012 11:26:14PM 1 point [-]

This rings so true. For years I've celebrated passover, without really considering what happened, or even if it was true. I'm glad my family is liberal enough, and I didn't ONLY rehearse the strong points, but it was interesting for me at the time how the creation myth uncannily fit in with the Big Bang theory.

That said, I was permitted to not only doubt, but not even have to defend. I just didn't follow my thoughts through. "Considering all this, is there any reason to actually worship a God, if that exists, which is unlikely? Moreso- oooh, youtube video giving a simple enough explanation to quantum physics that even I can understand it! I'll think things through later." and never actually arriving at the conclusion.

Judaism has, to me, still seemed most open and accepting of questioning. The philosophies are certainly interesting, and continue to affect me now - the core of "question everything" that I strive to follow originated from Judaism. Well, for me anyway. The lesswrong community has helped me even further, though. I still consider, if you are to believe in something before you become atheist - as in, a logical threshold you need to cross to become logical, Judaism has the lowest.

I'm not quite sure what there is to add to this, though. There is nothing more to add, in my opinion. Insightful.

Comment author: non-expert 06 February 2013 08:25:04PM 2 points [-]

How has Rationality, as a universal theory (or near-universal) on decision making, confronted its most painful weaknesses? What are rationality's weak points? The more broad a theory is claimed to be, the more important it seems to really test the theory's weaknesses -- that is why I assume you bring up religion, but the same standard should apply to rationality. This is not a cute question from a religious person, more of an intellectual inquiry from a person hoping to learn. In honor of the grand-daddy of cognitive biases, confirmation bias, doesn't rational choice theory need to be vetted?

HungryTurtle makes an attempt to get to this question, but he gets too far into the weeds -- this allowed LW to simply compare the "cons" of religion with the "cons" of rationality -- this is a silly inquiry -- I don't care how the weaknesses of rationality compares to the weaknesses of Judaism because rational theory, if universally applicable with no weaknesses, should be tested on the basis of that claim alone, and not its weaknesses relative to some other theory.

NOTE: re-posting without offending language in the hopes i dont need to create a new name. looks like i lost on my instrumental rationality point, got downvoted enough to get be restricted. on the bright side I am learning to admit i'm wrong (i was wrong to misread whether i'd offend LW, which prevented me from engaging with others on substantive points i'm trying to learn more about).

Comment author: fortyeridania 22 October 2013 07:44:18AM 1 point [-]

My point is that, when it comes to spontaneous self-questioning, one is much more likely to spontaneously self-attack strong points with comforting replies to rehearse, then to spontaneously self-attack the weakest, most vulnerable points.

Typo: "then" should be "than."

Comment author: [deleted] 06 April 2015 09:03:53PM 1 point [-]

Can anyone point out the weakest points in christianity? You need to know enough about it and you need to give it considerable thought.

(I am christian. As long as I can remember I have adopted a mindset of skeptical thinking and self doubt, but since I in real life don´t know many people who are smarter than me and knows enough to say anything about christianity, I ask you. My mom is agnostic and pretty clever, but she can come up with better arguments for a God than I can. A fair warning, I doubt that many here knows enough about christianity to actually come up with something, but I would be positively surprised if someone did. I have some weak points of my own, but it would be very useful to see if I have missed something instead of just sticking with that.)

Comment author: [deleted] 06 April 2015 09:17:32PM 3 points [-]

A list that pops up for me, but I don't think they are exactly unusual (and most if not all of them can be found somewhere on this blog):

  • Pain, suffering, death, injustice, etc.
  • Why did rabbits evolve to evade foxes and foxes to catch rabbits?
  • Why would elephants starve to death after they have lost their last teeth, going through all that suffering? Why not a painless death?
  • Why all those design inefficiencies (eyes backwards, testicles on the outside, ...)?
  • Is there anything that is actually evidence for the existence of god?
Comment author: Vaniver 06 April 2015 09:23:40PM 2 points [-]

testicles on the outside

I thought this made obvious sense for temperature regulation reasons. (The eye is a much stronger example.)

Comment author: [deleted] 06 April 2015 09:28:34PM 2 points [-]

I agree, if you are limited to the stupid designs that natural selection can produce. But if you are god, you should be able to do better!

Comment author: polymathwannabe 07 April 2015 09:57:44PM 0 points [-]

Then why do mammals need a different temperature in their testicles? Like mammals, birds also regulate their own temperature, and they do just fine with internal testicles.

Comment author: [deleted] 07 April 2015 10:17:11PM 0 points [-]

They evolved from dinosaurs. It could have something to do with that. Mammals are fundamentally different from reptiles and birds. Blame evolution.

Comment author: [deleted] 08 April 2015 11:20:51AM 0 points [-]

Didn't mammals evolve from reptiles, too? I think your argument would be stronger if you only left 'mammals are fundamentally different from birds'.

Comment author: [deleted] 08 April 2015 12:12:01PM 0 points [-]

Yes they did, but birds are much more related to dinosaurs than mammals are. All life forms evolved from Unicellular organisms.

Comment author: [deleted] 08 April 2015 02:27:58PM 0 points [-]

And why, do you think, did it take biologists until XIX century to agree upon the unicellular part?

Comment author: Jiro 08 April 2015 06:55:19PM 0 points [-]

If you really believe God is responsible for everything, "blame evolution" isn't really a good answer. Are you claiming that God is constrained in how he could set up evolution?

Comment author: [deleted] 08 April 2015 07:19:51PM -2 points [-]

I think God created the world, then he let it have it´s run. I wouldn´t say that he "set up" earths evolution in any specific way... Except for the creationists (are they even considered christian?) I don´t know any christians who would deny evolution today.

Comment author: polymathwannabe 08 April 2015 07:48:25PM 1 point [-]

Creationists describe themselves as Christians, and it's hard to see how anyone else could be in a better position to tell them what they are, especially within Protestantism, where there's no central authority on what the religion is and is not.

Comment author: [deleted] 09 April 2015 10:58:48AM *  -2 points [-]

I have always believed that you need to worship Jesus as a god, as someone divine, in order to call yourself christian. The source I have used as support for this claim is The 1986 edition of this encyclopedia For the record, it was ultimately supervised by four professors and actually written and produced by many more, including docents in religions.

Jiro says that "blame evolution" is not a good answer. But I have the right to believe in evolution even though I believe in a God. There is no need for a contradiction there.

Comment author: ChristianKl 09 April 2015 12:03:35PM 1 point [-]

I have always believed that you need to worship Jesus as a god, as someone divine, in order to call yourself christian.

Most US creationists would indeed say that they do worship Jesus as a God. Most of the Christian's with whom you interact might not believe in creationism but it's a mistake to assume that the people you know are representative for the whole world.

See the gallup poll for the US.

For the record, it was ultimately supervised by four professors and actually written and produced by many more, including docents in religions.

Argument by authority doesn't bring you far on LW. Especially when you make trivial errors such as questioning whether creationists are Christian.

Comment author: [deleted] 09 April 2015 12:09:12PM 0 points [-]

I did not downvote this, but I think whoever did meant it as 'actually, you are NOT entitled to believe in evolution'. (People who view evolution through the lenses of genetics and biotechnology and not, say, botany and zoology, intuitively seem to me less baffled by it - not always a good thing. You have to be as baffled as you possibly can, to seek out any weak spots at all.)

Comment author: Jiro 09 April 2015 09:27:53PM 2 points [-]

The reason that "blame evolution" isn't a good answer isn't that evolution specifically is incompatible with Christianity. The reason is that "blame anything" isn't a good answer, whether it's evolution or something else. God is supposed to be in complete control over the universe. The argument "God only let it happen because of X" is nonsense no matter what X is, because God can do anything he wants; he's not subject to constraints.

Comment author: Vaniver 08 April 2015 12:21:31AM *  3 points [-]

they do just fine with internal testicles.

I will admit, I don't know much about bird testicles. But looking into it for 5 minutes suggests that there seem to be more significant streamlining concerns for aquatic and flying animals than normal ground animals, and the different convection for being suspended in water / moving quickly through air suggests to me that it might be easier to do temperature regulation if they're internal (as might come to the mind of any man who's gotten into a cold pool).

Comment author: gjm 07 April 2015 12:40:58AM 3 points [-]

weakest points in christianity?

Depends on what sort of Christianity. For instance, much of blossom's list is clearly addressed to those who believe that God designed earth's living things (directly or less so) but some Christians don't believe that.

Would you care to say a few words about the variety of Christianity you favour?

(In case the answer is no, here are a few suggested weak points for different varieties, all probably expressed too tersely to be more than the barest gesture towards an argument. Hardcore inerrantist fundamentalism: internal inconsistencies in the Bible. More mainstream but still fairly "traditional": arguments from evil and silence. Varieties that stress God's love over his power and suggest that for whatever reason he largely has "no hands on earth but ours", but still see him as exerting moral influence: the fact that Christians are not spectacularly better morally than everyone else. Highly sophistimacated apophatic theology that refuses to say anything definite about God: impossibility of actually having any evidence to speak of for a being so vaguely defined; lack of continuity with the Christian tradition whose existence and longevity are pretty much the only reason for paying any attention to such ideas. All but the last: general shortage of evidence and tendencies for the more impressive sorts to evaporate on closer inspection; maybe complexity penalty for introducing into your model of the universe a god whose properties are so hard to pin down.)

I doubt that many here knows enough about christianity to actually come up with something

I don't know how LW compares with other places occupied by large numbers of intelligent atheists, but my experience generally is that a large fraction of atheists are former theists, many of them former serious and well informed theists. I don't know whether we will come up with anything you find impressive (and of course you may be strongly motivated to find anything we do come up with unimpressive...) but if not it probably won't be out of sheer ignorance of Christianity.

Comment author: [deleted] 07 April 2015 09:41:28PM *  -2 points [-]

Thank you for your answer.

Would you care to say a few words about the variety of Christianity you favour?

I am an evangelic christian and within my belief the gospels override everything else that is or can be seen as contradictory. (I don´t read the Torah since I am not a Jew and I do not seek wisdome in the old testament even though I have had a surprinsingly wise teacher who taught me how to interpret that old rubbish in ways that actually made sense to me.) See, if I believe Jesus was divine, I have to value the words of Christ higher than the words of his followers and mortal predecessors.

I don't know how LW compares with other places occupied by large numbers of intelligent atheists, but my experience generally is that a large fraction of atheists are former theists, many of them former serious and well informed theists.

Yes, my hope was and is that someone like that will answer my question. You are right, your answers do not impress me, you seem to fail to understand important things about christianity. I can come up with much better counter arguments myself, but I really appreciate the honest try. If you would like me to tell you about what I think might be wrong in your picture of what christianity is about, you can PM me or ask me to answer here.

Comment author: Jiro 07 April 2015 09:48:17PM 0 points [-]

you seem to fail to understand important things about christianity

Really? Name the two best examples of people here misunderstanding.

Comment author: [deleted] 07 April 2015 10:09:01PM 0 points [-]

I don´t understand what you mean. Examples of people?

Comment author: Jiro 07 April 2015 10:23:03PM 1 point [-]

Examples of misunderstandings by people.

Comment author: gjm 07 April 2015 11:19:45PM 2 points [-]

Examples of misunderstanding. (Though I think Jiro may have misunderstood your statement that I fail to understand important things about Christianity as saying that the LW population at large fails to understand important things about Christianity.)

Comment author: polymathwannabe 07 April 2015 10:18:50PM 0 points [-]

Besides the entire Old Testament, do you also disregard the books of Acts, Epistles and Apocalypse?

Comment author: [deleted] 07 April 2015 10:20:56PM *  1 point [-]

They have lower priority than what could be the words of God. I do not disregard the New testament, I just "like" the gospels more than the rest of it.

Comment author: polymathwannabe 07 April 2015 10:23:24PM 0 points [-]

Do you agree completely with the Church's opinion on which books should be part of the Bible and which books shouldn't?

Comment author: [deleted] 07 April 2015 10:36:43PM 0 points [-]

I take it you refer to christian churches. No. But I haven't fully read any non-canon gospels yet. Do note this is off topic, PM me or continue our old chat instead, you have not answered there yet :)

Comment author: gjm 07 April 2015 11:18:48PM *  6 points [-]

I am an evangelic Christian and within my belief the gospels override everything else [...]

I take it "evangelic", as you're using it, is not identical to the fairly common term "evangelical" despite its obvious shared etymology? Evangelicalism as generally understood is hard to reconcile with calling the OT "old rubbish". I guess you're using it to mean something like "centred on the gospels".

I'd have a pretty good idea of your likely position on lots of things if you were an evangelical in the usual sense (inerrancy of scripture or something close to it, salvation sola fide, strongly substitutionary theory of the atonement, relatively more stress on personal faith and relationship-with-God rather than more corporate things, inclined to skepticism about anything that could be labelled "tradition" or "ritual", etc., etc., etc., etc.) but unfortunately what you've said here isn't terribly indicative.

your answers do not impress me

They weren't answers, they were (as I said in so many words) brief gestures in the direction of possible answers. If you think I would think half a dozen words would convince you of anything, then I think you must think I think you're either much cleverer or much stupider than is at all plausible.

you seem to fail to understand important things about christianity

I honestly do not know how you could possibly be justified in leaping to such a conclusion from what I have written here. I wonder whether you have perhaps misunderstood the nature of my response.

Perhaps it is necessary to say some of the following things explicitly. 1. Christianity -- like any religion -- is not simply a body of propositions; it is also a community, a way of life, a set of attitudes, allegedly a personal and/or corporate communion with God, a rich stream of traditions of many kinds, etc., etc., etc. My comments are addressing some of the propositions because that is what you appeared to be interested in (e.g., talking about "arguments for God") but that doesn't mean I am unaware of the other things. 2. To any simple argument, whether good or bad, there is generally an almost-as-simple counterargument, to which in turn there is generally a counter-counter-argument one notch less simple again, etc. Of course when I say e.g. "argument from evil" I am not suggesting that on hearing the words "argument from evil" a Christian should deconvert on the spot. I am suggesting that there are lines of argument, briefly alluded to by that term, for which at any given level of sophistication the atheist has the better case. I have not actually made any such argument here, and of course I do not expect anyone to be convinced by the mere mention of a family of arguments. Similarly for all the other things I mentioned. 3. I am well aware that there are varieties of Christian thinking that attempt to sidestep some of the arguments I mention -- e.g., denying that introducing God into your understanding of the world makes it more complex, because by definition God is supremely simple. For each such, though, (a) there are other varieties that don't attempt the sidestep, and further (b) disagreeing with something is not the same as failing to understand it.

Or perhaps none of that helps. Who knows? Anyway, I would be interested to know a few examples of things you believe I fail to understand about Christianity. I think it would be more productive to tell me here out in the open, but if you prefer to PM me then feel free.

(I was a Christian for -- depending on exactly how you count -- at least twenty years. I have held (minor) leadership roles in Christian organizations. I have a few shelves of theology books, maybe 90% of which I have read. My wife is still an active Christian. It is of course possibly that I completely fail to understand fundamental things about the religion that was central to my life for decades (either because I never did, or because abandoning the faith exposed me to some kind of demonic possession, or whatever) but I would suggest that you consider the possibilities (1) that you have arrived at your conclusion prematurely and/or (2) that you would consider that, say, 80% or more of serious Christians fail to understand important things about Christianity. Which, of course, might be true.)

[EDITED to clarify a sentence in which I inadvertently used the word "common" with two quite different meanings.]

Comment author: [deleted] 08 April 2015 10:50:46AM *  -1 points [-]

I take it "evangelic", as you're using it, is not identical to the fairly common term "evangelical" despite its obvious shared etymology? Evangelicalism as generally understood is hard to reconcile with calling the OT "old rubbish". I guess you're using it to mean something like "centred on the gospels".

Wikipedia Yes, it may be confusing but I tend to use words in their original meaning. It is good to check anyway, since english is not my native language.

I honestly do not know how you could possibly be justified in leaping to such a conclusion from what I have written here. I wonder whether you have perhaps misunderstood the nature of my response.

Perhaps I arrived prematurely at the conclusion, but as I said, I think you might have misunderstood, I didn´t say you actually had. If I mean to say that you are wrong, I say that you are wrong. Okey, so you only hint at stuff. Well that don´t help me, is that a more political azccurate term?

Anyway, I would be interested to know a few examples of things you believe I fail to understand about Christianity. I think it would be more productive to tell me here out in the open, but if you prefer to PM me then feel free.

Okey, I will point out the hings I saw as weird. 1. "Hardcore inerrantist fundamentalism: internal inconsistencies in the Bible." Why would a christian need to be a hardcore fundamentalist and interpret the whole Bible literal? You don´t interpret science fiction literal. I guess you mean that this only apply to SOME christians. 2. "the fact that Christians are not spectacularly better morally than everyone else." Well, this seems like an ambitious statement in my eyes. Compare all the countries with a cross in their flag with countries that don´t have it. Compare BNP and corruption, crime rate and wellfare etc etc. Now think about this: Why WOULD christians need to have higher moral? Where do you find that premise in the NT? It seems to me like that isn´t based in christian theology at all, but if you have 20 years experience as an active christian maybe you know something I don´t. 3. "Highly sophistimacated apophatic theology that refuses to say anything definite about God." Hah! Like we have been very successful at definitely defining the universe for hundreds of years of scientific struggle. Anyhow, here are something to consider; * The holy trinity * Jesus saying: I am the way and the life * The statement that Jesus is the son of God and God and all his teachings showing what he valued and who he was and how he acted, which is kind of the whole point of christianity. * First Epistle to the Corinthians, verse (?) 13

Now if we compare this with other religious teachings, I think we will find that we can see differences between the deities.

Comment author: gjm 08 April 2015 05:51:10PM *  4 points [-]

I tend to use words in their original meaning.

Not a bad policy. The trouble is that saying "my version of Christianity is rooted in the gospels" doesn't really do much to distinguish you from everyone else, because pretty much all Christians consider that their version of Christianity is rooted in the gospels. So describing your variety of Christianity as "evangelic" tells me rather little.

as I said, I think you might have misunderstood

Well, your actual words were "you seem to fail to understand important things about christianity". But it's OK; I'm not offended.

so you only hint at stuff

Well, you know, I did consider just asking you "so what kind of Christian are you?" and refusing to say anything about what might be the strongest arguments against any kind of Christianity until the kind is precisely specified. I thought it might help us move forward a bit quicker if I gave some indication of the kinds of arguments that might be appropriate, so that we could work in parallel on figuring out (1) what kind of Christianity to look for good arguments against and (2) what those arguments actually are.

Why would a christian need to be a hardcore fundamentalist and interpret the whole Bible literal?

They wouldn't. My whole point was that there are different kinds of Christians with different kinds of Christianity. One kind -- by no means the only kind -- is the hardcore fundamentalist who claims to believe everything in the Bible (not necessarily literally, but I never claimed otherwise). If I were looking for good arguments against that kind of Christianity, one thing I'd look at is inconsistencies between different bits of the Bible (that appear to be intended as straightforward history or doctrinal teaching rather than any kind of metaphor).

I guess you mean that this only apply to SOME christians.

Yes. If I hadn't already made that clear enough, I apologize. (I thought I had.)

Well, this seems like an ambitious statement in my eyes.

Really? You think a good default position is that Christians are spectacularly better than everyone else, morally? OK.

(I think the cross-country comparison you suggest is totally invalidated by lots of other things that historically happen to correlate a bit with Christian heritage.)

Why WOULD christians need to have higher moral? Where do you find that premise in the NT?

Christians are supposed (at least according to some varieties of Christianity, the ones I'd be taking aim at if I were making that kind of argument) to be indwelt by the Holy Spirit of God, who is the source of all goodness and value in the world.

Christians typical pray frequently (both individually and if following standard liturgies of various churches that have them) for their hearts to be purified, to be cleansed from sin, to be enabled to live righteously. This seems like very much the kind of prayer that the Christian god might be expected to grant, if he were real (it is clearly in line with his stated goals; it doesn't require "interference" with the world beyond people's minds; the minds in question are of people who have already declared themselves willing for him to change them, and are specifically asking him to do it.)

Like we have been very successful at definitely defining the universe for hundreds of years of scientific struggle.

Well, actually, we have. Spectacularly so. Do you really disagree?

[EDITED to add a few other things since I had to write the above in a bit of a rush, which is one reason why it's too long:]

Some suggestions in the NT that Christians should be much better morally than they generally are: 1 Peter 2 says that Jesus "bore our own sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin but live to righteousness"; one can read that as talking about some kind of "imputed righteousness" that doesn't actually involve acting righteously, but I think it's a stretch and more to the point a Christian of the particular kind I said this might be a good response to wouldn't take that position. 1 John 1 and 2 similarly talk of being "cleansed from all unrighteousness" and again I don't think it's likely that the author means some purely formal transaction that doesn't involve actually becoming morally better. He seems to admit only reluctantly that genuine Christians might continue to commit sins at all. In chapter 3 he goes further: "No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him." Now of course 1 John paints with a very broad brush, but there it is in the New Testament and even if the author is overstating his case he must mean something by it. That famous chapter that you recommended I should consider, 1 Corinthians 13: read it in its context; it is saying that love (with that whole extravagant litany of virtues it brings along with it) is the most important gift of the Holy Spirit that is supposed to be present and active within every Christian's heart. Galatians 5 has a lengthy list of "fruits of the Spirit" (which Christians are supposed to exhibit) and most of them are moral virtues (and the corresponding "works of the flesh" opposed thereto are mostly moral vices).

here are something to consider

I'm afraid it's not obvious what sort of conclusion you're hoping I'll draw from your list. Rather than guessing, I'll comment briefly on the individual items in it. I may very well be missing your point, though.

  • The holy trinity ... seems to me a doctrine of doubtful coherence and at best ambiguous support in the NT documents that are generally reckoned the foundation of Christian doctrine. Some Christians contemplating it have had neat ideas (e.g., the idea that the love Christianity makes a big deal of is found within, so to speak, the very structure of the Deity). I don't see that Christianity is any more likely to be right, or beneficial, on account of having this idea in it.
  • Jesus saying: I am the way and the life ... and the truth; don't forget the truth. Anyway, again I'm not sure what I'm supposed to be being impressed by here. There's a fair chance that Jesus's grand-sounding "I am ..." sayings, found only in John's gospel, were in fact made up by the author of that gospel -- don't you think they're the sort of things that the authors of the synoptic gospels might have been expected to record? So if you're working towards a "lord, liar or lunatic" argument then I don't think this is a great place to start. (Such arguments have other weaknesses, but I won't belabour them unless it turns out you really are making one.)
  • The statement that Jesus is the son of God and [etc.] ... well, it's a statement. I don't find that contemplating it fills me with awe or certainty that he must have been who the NT writers say he said he was. Many other religions don't make similar claims about their founders; I guess that's part of your point; but I'm not sure where you're going from there. (Lord/liar/lunatic again?)
  • First Epistle to the Corinthians, [chapter] 13 ... yeah, it's a fine piece of writing. So are some other things in the Bible. I don't see that they're supernaturally good, though, if that's where you're heading; I'm not familiar enough with other religions' scriptures to know how good their Best Bits are (though I know Muslims sometimes say that the sublimity of the Qur'an is evidence of its divine origin).
Comment author: gjm 08 April 2015 10:29:29PM 0 points [-]

Just a note: I see your comments in this thread are getting downvoted, but it's not by me.

Comment author: [deleted] 09 April 2015 05:57:57PM 0 points [-]

I know.

Comment author: gjm 09 April 2015 10:02:00PM 1 point [-]

Just out of curiosity: How? Has someone else been boasting of doing it?

Comment author: hairyfigment 08 April 2015 01:37:33AM 0 points [-]

You have yet to tell us what you believe, apart from the tribal/political reassurance about evolution. What do you mean by "divine" (this is important for prior probability), and what evidence do you believe you have for this variety of Jesus?

I assume you know that scholars largely consider the Gospels unreliable. The earliest one dates from during or after the war that destroyed the 'Second Temple', and we know of no Christian leader in Jerusalem who survived it. Shortly before this Nero supposedly persecuted the Christians in Rome. We know nothing about the history of Christianity at the time when the Gospel of Mark likely appeared, which weakly supports the claim that all the leaders were dead. We can't name anyone who definitely had the power to insist on points of doctrine or prevent innovation.

On the assumption most favorable to the reliability of the early Gospels - that someone in the know wrote them to preserve original Christianity in this difficult time - we should still conclude that they have a lot to do with theological/political disputes of the time which we know nothing about. We should expect to misinterpret something in the text through not knowing this context.

Comment author: Wes_W 07 April 2015 02:11:40AM *  4 points [-]

I don't know if this will feel relevant to you, but a big one for me in retrospect is that the concept of "faith" is really suspicious. When someone says "no, trust me unconditionally on this, I know you have doubts but just ignore them even though I will never address them in any concrete way," that person is lying to you.

I always thought of God as truth-loving. If faith is a virtue, then God's own commands undermine and obscure the truth, while making all sorts of lies equally defensible. The whole structure of the need for faith is just really weird if Christianity is true - but perfectly logical if Christianity is false.

Comment author: [deleted] 07 April 2015 10:06:03PM *  0 points [-]

A good point. I considered this when I was younger and still hadn´t fully turned my head towards christianity. (I still have a long way to go but I now consider myself christian.)

As I see it, we all have our basic premises. Just how much we depend on them differs. We all make fundamental choices. (In case you have read hpmor; Like Harry did when the sorting hat warned him about how unlogic it was for him to hope and risk that he would not turn into a dark wizard if he was sorted to any house but hufflepuff. He knew he was going to choose rawenclaw, but he couldn´t put words on WHY, and yes, that may be seen as suspicious.)

I think it is all about WHAT you put your faith in. Yes, you are allowed to doubt anything. And you should not blindly believe in something until you are ready to actually put your faith in it. It is a risk you take. Willingly. Kierkegaard once said something along the lines: "To have faith is to throw yourself out over a seventy thousand fathoms deep and hope that someone catches you." I don´t respect stupidity, as in suiciding by jumping off a cliff. But I do respect Kierkegaard. When you have found something you are willing to put your faith in, you need that bravery.

The need of faith (in christianity) may seem weird, if you do not know what you are supposed to have faith in. It is an important part of christianity to realize this. Many fail to draw any useful conslusion from the fact that Jesus says that we will be saved if we believe. And I do consider the conclusion that there is no god to be a useful conclusion if that is the best answer that mind can produce. Everyones way is their own making and should be respected. Those who "believe" in something just for the sake of it are not doing it right as far as I can see.

Comment author: polymathwannabe 07 April 2015 10:38:41PM 1 point [-]

To me the weakest points of Christianism are two:

  • The lack of evidence for the existence of its deity. Even proving that a deity exists is not enough; you would still need to prove that the deity you found is the one described by the Bible. And proving that the Christian deity exists would still not be enough; you would also need to prove that the Bible describes it accurately. And even then you would need to prove monotheism, i.e. that other possible gods aren't real too.

  • The internal inconsistencies and factual errors in the Bible. Specialized websites like IronChariotsWiki and RationalWiki can give better descriptions of this problem than I could.

Comment author: Persol 07 April 2015 11:27:14PM *  0 points [-]

I'm not quite sure what you want to see when you ask for the 'weakest point in Christianity'. I thought the easily found arguments and frequently discussed arguments were compelling enough by themselves. I was a regular Sunday school attendee, continued to go to church (for social reasons) even after I started to think the whole thing was random, and genuinely enjoy having these sorts of discussions

The main things that I found had weight is that it's taking the numerous world religions and saying 'this one' without any great reason. When the correct selection may damn you for eternity, it's worthy of considering the alternatives.

  • From an outside view, I see no reason to privilege the supernatural portions of Christianity over other religions. Rhetorically, what do you find as the weak points of every other religion? Don't many of these apply to Christianity?
  • Generic inconsistencies - having read all the Biblical texts (some multiple times), and referencing databases for discussions of the original pre-translated text, the number of straightforward contradictions is outstanding. If we just assume for a second that some of the text was effectively the word of god, you still don't know which parts. And that's disregarding every other religion's text, seemingly without justification.
  • Inconsistencies in practice - some branches of Christianity heavily discount the Bible due to the above.... but this makes the problem WORSE. It just dilutes the 'god content' even further. Arguments of your specific practitioners being 'inspired by god' needs to address all the people who disagree with you but say the same thing.

The specific details about Christ, and your 'flavor' of Christianity, are besides the point in light of the above. Other than popularity, Christianity still has the same problems as Zeus and the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

All that said, the best argument for Christianity seems to be as a placeholder belief and social system. For some people it's better just to pick a set of beliefs and go with it (IE: it's a complex/unknowable local minima problem that's 'good enough').

P.S. - I'd be interested in hearing your arguments 'for' God. I've yet to see one that isn't so broad to be effectively meaningless. You might want to just google your argument for God and see if there aren't already identified issues.

Comment author: dxu 07 April 2015 11:49:23PM 5 points [-]

The main things that I found had weight is that it's taking the numerous world religions and saying 'this one' without any great reason.

In fact, it's even worse than that. You're not selecting from the set of all existing religions in the world today, but rather from the set of all possible religions, even those that haven't been invented.

Comment author: Persol 08 April 2015 12:21:48AM 0 points [-]

True and I didn't consider that... but assuming a supreme being had any impact in humanity, it is reasonable to assume that the set of practiced religions are more likely to be true than the set of not discovered religions.

I was trying to minimize the possible tangential arguments. I think trying to expand from 1 religion to 19 major religions is enough to show the problem without going to ~200 religions, which allows room to argue about applicabiliy/similarity of subtypes. Going to all possible religions allows room to argue about applicability of set theory.

Comment author: hairyfigment 08 April 2015 12:51:28AM 1 point [-]

I don't know the best approach for convincing flawed humans, and I would certainly start with the argument from other existing religions (rather than the world-creating cheese sandwich someone came up with). But objectively, given the vast set of possible alternatives that religions ignore, the only real significance to Hinduism or whatever vs Christianity is that it helps show belief is not much evidence for truth. It gives us some evidence (at least in many cases) but not necessarily a significant amount compared to the complexity penalties involved with detailed religious claims. And even an Abrahamic God (or a divine Gospel Jesus, if we treat that as overlapping rather than a proper subset) is pretty detailed if we combine historical claims with some meaningful traits of divinity.

Comment author: Persol 08 April 2015 01:02:49AM 0 points [-]

I know this has been discussed before, but I'm not convinced that complexity penalties should apply to anything involving human witnesses.

Suppose someone theorizes that the sun is made of a micro black hole covered in lightbulbs, and there is no obvious physics being broken.... this is an obvious place to use complexity penalties. Simpler models can explain the evidence.

With the Bible though, we have witnesses that presumably entangle the Bible with a divine being. Complexity penalty in this case shouldn't penalize for extra details. (Considering complexity penalties may still point to "this story is made up for social reasons, and here are some prior sources" instead of "god did it"... but this isn't due to the amount of detail provided.)

Comment author: hairyfigment 08 April 2015 01:22:50AM 1 point [-]

...What? As a technical matter, the laws of probability say that evidence (eyewitness or otherwise) tells us how to update a prior probability, and ultimately a complexity penalty seems like the only way to get sensible priors.

I take you to mean that in a real eyewitness account, we should expect details. That seems more or less right, but largely irrelevant to what I'm saying - even the idea of a human-like mind is more complicated than it appears. That's before we get to the details of the story (which we might doubt to some degree, in more trustworthy cases, even while paradoxically taking those details as evidence for some core claim).

Even the bare claim that God was involved with certain historical figures is another logically distinct detail we need to penalize before we get to the specifics of any one Gospel or source for the Torah. So the evidence of witnesses would need to overcome this penalty. And of course, in order for them to justify the beliefs about God, we would need to understand what that word means and how someone could directly or indirectly observe its object.

Comment author: Persol 08 April 2015 02:13:42AM 0 points [-]

I may have misread your initial comment. To paraphrase to check my reading: you are penalizing due to complexity of a 'god' prior but, on the balance, eyewitness details should increase your estimate of the claimed witnessed set being true. More details from eyewitnesses do not then penalize further. The complexity of the god models are just so complex in the first place, that eyewitness details don't increase your estimate much.

What I'm not grasping is what this sentence meant:

And even an Abrahamic God (or a divine Gospel Jesus, if we treat that as overlapping rather than a proper subset) is pretty detailed if we combine historical claims with some meaningful traits of divinity.

Functionally, we're talking about the set of vaguely Bible shaped gods... not all the details would need to be true. Eyewitness claims that this bible shaped god interacted with a historical figure should STILL increase your estimate of it happening.... even though that increase may still be infinitesimal.

Excepting things like "the following sentence is false", eyewitness details should always increase the chance of something like the referenced object existing. It may in parallel also provide evidence that the 'custody chain' is faulty or faked... but that's a different issue.

Comment author: hairyfigment 08 April 2015 09:23:21AM 1 point [-]

Pretty much. I'm saying that "vaguely Bible shaped," rather than "touched down only in Jackson County, Missouri in 1978," is itself a detail to be justified.

Comment author: MarkusRamikin 09 April 2015 06:43:29AM 0 points [-]

Wait, why? If God existed, I'd expect the true religion to be among actually existing ones.

Comment author: Wes_W 09 April 2015 07:18:17AM 2 points [-]

As long as it's a god with a Big Divine Plan in which humans play a role, sure.

If the gods created the universe so they could watch the big shiny hydrogen balls, and don't care about the emergent properties of complex proteins on that one planet in that one galaxy, we wouldn't necessarily know about it.

Comment author: MarkusRamikin 09 April 2015 10:19:32AM *  0 points [-]

Well crap.

I guess that when I thought "religion", I thought "system of worship", not "system of belief". To me the a religion would be "true" if it accurately responded to a demand for worship or obedience or such. If the creators of the Universe have no preferences over our actions, then at most you could have a, well, description of them, but not much of a religion thus defined. Discovering such beings would not make me a religious person.

Of course now that I thought of it explicitely, I realize this is a rather narrow definition.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 08 April 2015 07:14:53PM 2 points [-]

From my point of view the most hazardous thing about Christianity (this may also be the weakest point logically, but that's a different claim) is that Christianity posits a realm which is different from and superior to what can be perceived directly and thought about logically. This makes it rather easy to treat people very badly, both other people and oneself.

Comment author: [deleted] 08 April 2015 11:05:07PM 6 points [-]

After reading a sizable amount of your responses, I have to ask if your interest is truly in finding weak points of your religion, or if you are merely trying to defend your beliefs to a (largely) atheist audience--possibly hoping to win a few converts, or at the very least trying to reassure yourself of your beliefs.

Comment author: [deleted] 06 April 2015 09:11:03PM *  0 points [-]

More than anything, the grip of religion is sustained by people just-not-thinking-about the real weak points of their religion. I don't think this is a matter of training, but a matter of instinct. People don't think about the real weak points of their beliefs for the same reason they don't touch an oven's red-hot burners; it's painful.

I think that Eliezer oversimplifies religious beliefs. People who have witnessed terrible things have kept their faith. People who have witnessed their loved ones being killed and tortured still have clung on to their religion. These people have had all the reason in the world to doubt the existence of a benevolent god. They surely have thought of the weak points, when you find yourself being tortured, you don´t keep your faith just because you want an explanation for everything. And afterward I find it hard to believe they just reasoned away it all. My point is that sheer idiocy probably didn´t convince all of those who have suffered, something else must have fooled them, or a lot of things combined.

Comment author: gjm 07 April 2015 12:52:52AM 2 points [-]

This would be a stronger argument if people were generally something close to perfect reasoners, and especially if they were so when subjected to terrible suffering. Unfortunately, that isn't the case. In the face of terrible suffering people are frequently very irrational, and I wouldn't attach much weight to what happens to their religious position in such cases. (They might, e.g., cling to religious beliefs they find comforting, even if the thing they need comforting because of is really very good evidence against those beliefs. Or they might abandon religious beliefs because they're so badly hurt they can no longer conceive of such a thing as a good god, even if they have what are objectively very good reasons to think that their former beliefs aren't invalidated by what they've suffered.)

Even very intelligent and reasonable people who generally try very hard to be skeptical and rational can be extremely irrational about things they've believed for a very long time, grown used to, and built their identities around. Political and (ir)religious positions are particularly liable to be held irrationally. If any part of your belief is founded on the idea that what lots of intelligent and reasonable people believe can't be terribly wrong, you should reconsider that. The existence of lots of intelligent and reasonable Christians is, unfortunately, perfectly compatible with Christianity being obviously crazy when looked at objectively; the existence of lots of intelligent and reasonable atheists, likewise, is perfectly compatible with atheism being obviously crazy when looked at objectively.

(My opinion is that neither is obviously crazy, but that very few reasonable people would be much inclined to think Christianity likely to be right if they encountered it afresh without the influence of a culture saturated in Christianity, and if when they did encounter it they saw an unbiased selection of relevant evidence rather than e.g. meeting it through the preaching of evangelists whose goal is more to persuade than to inform.)

Comment author: nitrat665 08 April 2015 02:50:10PM *  1 point [-]

One of the problems with this argument is that the such perseverence is not unique to Christianity in particular and religion in general:

  • Many religions have stories of believers' faith persisting against all odds, so this particular property can't be easily attributed to Christ exclusively.
  • Religion in general does not have a monopoly on perseverance either - people have been known to keep their ideas about the superiority of their country / government / lord / general political idea even with an overwhelming amount of evidence pointing in the other direction or even when threatened with death or torture.
  • Perserverance is not limited to noble acts, like keeping your faith in god or loyalty to your political leaders either. I am pretty sure many of us have personally observed people keeping some sort of belief (non-religious and non-patriotic) that was detrimental and unprofitable to them (even sometimes to such an extent that holding on to such belief leads to severe harm or death).
Comment author: [deleted] 08 April 2015 03:32:45PM -1 points [-]

I agree, but these religions has endured for centuries, unlike your other examples. I dont argue for christianity,( why do you presume that?) I mean that EY oversimplifies religious beliefs in general.

Comment author: nitrat665 09 April 2015 01:53:06PM *  0 points [-]

Religions' centuries-long endurance is an interesting topic to think about. However, there are simpler explanations for the longevity of religious beliefs than attributing them to some sort of supernatural causes - ones involving some sort of memetic selection. I am pretty sure there are good and detailed studies out there in the internet that you could read for a more detailed argument on that, maybe even on this site, but as for a simple explanation, here is a hypothesis that I could come up with in about 5 minutes of thinking:

Here is a list of certain traits that are common to many long-surviving and wide-spread religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam are the most fitting examples) :

  • Indoctrination starts in the family at a young age
  • The strength of belief (especially, unreasoning belief) is considered something positive and praiseworthy
  • A large value is placed on holding this exact set of beliefs
  • Not-believers (atheists or people with differing religious views) are described as inferior
  • There are promises of reward for the faithful (in this world and after death) and punishment for the unfaithful
  • There are various well-established practices and rituals that can be seen as directly intended for increasing the strength of the belief

At least to me, those seem like the exact traits needed for a set of beliefs to become self-reinforcing and infectious, so I wouldn't be very surprised if a belief set with such traits survived a long time. Actually, I do not remember seeing a post here that would go into more depth on this, but maybe I will compose one, if I have the time and people think it is an interesting topic.

Comment author: [deleted] 08 April 2015 10:58:14AM 0 points [-]

...wait, so if I don't want to believe in a God whose morality is ineffable, who has power over time and matter, and has, they say, surgically altered the course of history on a number of occasions (think the Flood), does it mean I'm making this exact mistake, avoiding my [atheistic] belief's real weak point? I mean, I can't remember any 'manifestation of God's power' that happened in peopled regions which didn't hurt anyone. If he exists, and is supposedly powerful, what are the woes of Egyptian firstborn to me if he can just wipe out the universe?..

Comment author: [deleted] 14 April 2015 07:59:35AM 0 points [-]

This feeling, anger and not being allowed to doubt, was what I felt after reading Andersen's The little match girl.