"Big Surprise" - the famous atheists are actually Bayesians [link]

post by Dr_Manhattan · 2012-04-08T16:11:30.166Z · score: -9 (20 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 21 comments

http://bigthink.com/think-tank/neil-degrasse-tyson-atheist-or-agnostic

Apparently Dawkins and Tyson give a non-zero probability to "God". Which is pretty much what is expected of a rational person. And of course it will be used by theists to say "They aren't really sure!"

21 comments

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comment by JoshuaZ · 2012-04-08T17:42:16.208Z · score: 8 (10 votes) · LW · GW

Agreeing that one should assign some uncertainty to claims doesn't mean one is necessarily a Bayesian. Additionally, while this may get into a definitional disagreement over what it means to be a Bayesian, agreeing not to use 0 and 1 as probabilities for real world events is not generally considered to be a fundamental of Bayesianism.

comment by RobertLumley · 2012-04-08T18:38:11.900Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I would edit your second statement to say is not generally considered to be exclusive to Bayesians. But both are correct.

comment by XiXiDu · 2012-04-08T17:05:08.493Z · score: 2 (8 votes) · LW · GW

Apparently Dawkins and Tyson give a non-zero probability to "God". Which is pretty much what is expected of a rational person.

And those who do are irrational or not Bayesians? I think that quite a few people who proclaim that "God" does not exist would assign a nonzero probability to its existence if you asked them directly.

If you asked me if I exist I'd reply "Yes, certainly!"...0 and 1 not being probabilities notwithstanding.

comment by Ezekiel · 2012-04-08T21:12:54.593Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

If you asked me if I exist I'd shift into philosopher-mode and probably not give you a straight answer at all. But the point is clear.

comment by PDH · 2012-04-09T14:05:58.347Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I don't think that Dawkins or Tyson explicitly think of themselves as Bayesians. I would guess that they know the theorem and consider it useful in certain contexts without fully grasping its broader implications for science and epistemology. Or possibly they disagree that it has those implications, as many people do. Try introducing Tyson to some of Eliezer's views on MWI and see how he responds. My guess would be that he's missing a lot of the context necessary to appreciate that position even if he accepts that plausibility comes in degrees.

Dawkins is the more interesting case.

In the God Delusion, Dawkins proposes a seven point scale to measure one's degree of belief in theism with, I think, 0 being someone who was absolutely certain of its truth and 7 someone who was equally certain of its falsehood (placing himself at a 6.9). This probably maps onto probability theory pretty well but if he identified as a Bayesian I'd expect him to just use the conventions of probability theory (i.e. 0 and 1). In fact, that would have been an excellent opportunity to introduce Bayesianism. A straight forward introduction to Bayesianism from one of the best popular science writers published in a hugely successful book would have been extremely welcome but he doesn't go there. And I don't see why he wouldn't. He has a discussion of game theory in later additions of the Selfish Gene, for example, and I think he would do a good job of presenting something like that to a broader audience. I think it would have gone some way towards improving the quality of a lot of typical atheist reasoning, as well. I know I said and believed a lot of regrettably stupid things about theism and religion prior to catching the bug.

I do think that Dawkins would be sympathetic to Bayesian Epistemology if it was presented to him in the right way and you could make a good case that he tacitly presupposes some of the main assumptions but I just don't think he realises that he's doing it. It's possible to accept quite a lot of Bayesianism - both knowingly and unknowingly - without having that click.

comment by David_Gerard · 2012-04-09T14:34:34.579Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

The seven-point scale was originally presented in The God Delusion as an enumerated list of positions on the question, not as a continuous scale to be mapped to probability. Though of course you can bend it into one, as Dawkins implicitly does by saying "6.9".

More generally, your comment reads a bit like Lukeprog's review of Carrier's Proving History: Lukeprog considers it failed advocacy for Bayes because of its topic (the historical Jesus), whereas Carrier considers it a book on historical methodology using the historical Jesus as his example, because that was the precise topic he was being paid to write on. I think authorial intent does count.

comment by PDH · 2012-04-09T17:53:07.814Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I agree with your first paragraph, though in the interests of authorial intent, I'd like to stress that I don't think that Dawkins subscribes to Bayesianism and I don't think that The God Delusion has anything to do with Bayes. I was saying, 'this is about as close as he gets to Bayesianism and he's not quite there, which is a pity because he would have made for a good advocate. The best you could say is that he's tacitly using similar logic in certain places, one example being the seven point scale.'

comment by David_Gerard · 2012-04-09T18:00:11.027Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

He does mention Bayes elsewhere in the book, so he knows what it is. But there's certainly little positive evidence for him having adopted Bayesian epistemology as a personal philosophy, which is rather more than knowing an equation.

comment by XiXiDu · 2012-04-10T08:27:31.615Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

But there's certainly little positive evidence for him having adopted Bayesian epistemology as a personal philosophy, which is rather more than knowing an equation.

So what do you think how much it would improve Dawkins general rationality to adapt it as a personal philosophy? Or would he have to read the sequences as well?

How much below the standards of Less Wrong do you think he currently is?

Here is Dawkins on AI and the Singularity.

comment by David_Gerard · 2012-04-10T10:46:46.724Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Well, I think that by any reasonable standards of "winning", Richard Dawkins beats just about everyone here, whether he agrees sufficiently with local tropes or not. So it's not clear I'm qualified to answer.

comment by XiXiDu · 2012-04-10T11:39:48.372Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Well, I think that by any reasonable standards of "winning", Richard Dawkins beats just about everyone here, whether he agrees sufficiently with local tropes or not.

I agree. And that also means that whether he mentions Bayesian epistemology or not is not the best question you can ask. A better question would be, how could he have improved his output, or improve his future output, by mentioning or adopting it? The same could be asked about the Sequences.

...it's not clear I'm qualified to answer.

I think that a strong SI advocate would have to say that Dawkins is not "winning" because he did not conclude that risks from AI are the most important issue one could care about, even though he knows about the possibility of superhuman AI. So he must be below the level of SI standards. And by reading the Sequences he could learn not to waste his time with less important issues anymore ;-)

comment by PDH · 2012-04-09T18:03:45.778Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Yes, I agree.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-04-08T19:20:25.051Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Well, I think many theists don't assign a probability of exactly 1 to God existing either. (I'd only call someone agnostic if they assigned odds against God existing “of order unity”.)

comment by shminux · 2012-04-08T20:22:05.701Z · score: 0 (8 votes) · LW · GW

many theists don't assign a probability of exactly 1 to God existing either.

Believers do not assign probabilities in the matters of faith.

comment by Ezekiel · 2012-04-08T21:06:35.121Z · score: 4 (6 votes) · LW · GW

That's an unbelievable overgeneralisation. There are lots of theists who understand probability theory and who consider themselves "rational" or even "rationalists". Myself pre-July 2011, Mason "Tailsteak" Williams (who is worth Googling, by the way), et cetera.

comment by shminux · 2012-04-08T22:41:22.842Z · score: 1 (5 votes) · LW · GW

There are lots of theists who understand probability theory and who consider themselves "rational" or even "rationalists".

Yes, but in the matters of faith they start with the bottom line, and make up the relevant probabilities along the way to match it.

comment by Ezekiel · 2012-04-08T23:26:26.288Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Sometimes, but they're not aware that's what they're doing. So in practice that probability is irrelevant, but I'm pretty sure that in practice Richard Dawkins is never going to assign a significant probability to "God exists". He still assigned a not-zero probability when asked. Same with such theists.

Other times, they're genuinely quite rational people who have literally never heard of most of the evidence and arguments against their position. I once saw a theist renounce their faith after an hour of real debate, because that was just the first time they'd had that conversation with an atheist who knew what they were talking about.

(I'm sorry to be so contrary, but the dismissive attitude I see on LW towards the insanely huge fraction of humanity that belongs to one religion or another is annoying. They're not all dumb cultists. Some of them are Robert Aumann.)

EDIT: For clarity, before any replies were posted.

comment by shminux · 2012-04-09T02:08:05.409Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I'm sorry to be so contrary, but the dismissive attitude I see on LW towards the insanely huge fraction of humanity that belongs to one religion or another is annoying.

I agree, believing in zero gods does not warrant the feeling of superiority.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-04-08T22:19:31.102Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Well, I guess there are lots of non-Bayesians among non-believers too. And I've heard quite a few believers who, while they were likely not familiar with the concept of probability, made a distinction between belief and knowledge (IIRC, a priest saying “the devil believes in God more strongly than any man, including the Pope: he knows God exists because he has seen him, unlike the Pope who hasn't and so might still have some doubt”.)

comment by shminux · 2012-04-08T22:42:54.546Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Well, I guess there are lots of non-Bayesians among non-believers too.

Most people are non-Bayesians, including non-believers.

comment by Oligopsony · 2012-04-09T12:46:05.324Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Clearly the Devil should be more rational. How does he know he's not a soul in a vat?