Rationality Quotes Thread September 2015

post by elharo · 2015-09-02T09:25:19.804Z · score: 3 (6 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 482 comments

Another month, another rationality quotes thread. The rules are:

  • Please post all quotes separately, so that they can be upvoted or downvoted separately. (If they are strongly related, reply to your own comments. If strongly ordered, then go ahead and post them together.)
  • Do not quote yourself.
  • Do not quote from Less Wrong itself, HPMoR, Eliezer Yudkowsky, or Robin Hanson. If you'd like to revive an old quote from one of those sources, please do so here.
  • No more than 5 quotes per person per monthly thread, please.
  • Provide sufficient information (URL, title, date, page number, etc.) to enable a reader to find the place where you read the quote, or its original source if available. Do not quote with only a name.

482 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by dspeyer · 2015-09-02T16:07:24.285Z · score: 21 (23 votes) · LW · GW

I consider that I understand an equation when I can predict the properties of its solutions, without actually solving it.

-- Paul Dirac

comment by elharo · 2015-09-02T10:00:52.344Z · score: 19 (21 votes) · LW · GW

if we want economics to be a science, we have to recognize that it is not ok for macroeconomists to hole up in separate camps, one that supports its version of the geocentric model of the solar system and another that supports the heliocentric model. As scientists, we have to hold ourselves to a standard that requires us to reach a consensus about which model is right, and then to move on to other questions.

The alternative to science is academic politics, where persistent disagreement is encouraged as a way to create distinctive sub-group identities.

--Paul Romer, NYU, "My Paper “Mathiness in the Theory of Economic Growth

comment by James_Miller · 2015-09-02T16:47:22.531Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

What if everyone knows that all the models are flawed, but the geocentric model makes the best predictions in one sub-domain, and the heliocentric model in another?

comment by dspeyer · 2015-09-02T17:40:55.224Z · score: 12 (12 votes) · LW · GW

Then the most important question for any model would be what domains it's good at.

For example: one model approximates the population as infinite, so it gets decent predictions when the number of agents in each category exceeds five (this is rare).

These requirements to apply the model should be the first thing taught about the model.

comment by Good_Burning_Plastic · 2015-09-03T10:38:12.921Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Well, if you replace "geocentric model" and "heliocentric model" with "general relativity" and "quantum field theory" that's pretty much the situation that obtains in present-day theoretical physics.

comment by elharo · 2015-09-04T10:14:20.194Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

In physics general relativity and quantum field theory are applied to different domains and at least one, possibly both, are widely recognized as mere approximations to the ultimate theory that subsumes them.

I'll defer to Dr. Miller on this if he cares to weigh in, or any other professional economist, but my outsider's impression is that in economics as discussed by Romer the situation is more that contradictory theories are being applied to the same domain, without a serious effort to determine experimentally which (if either) is correct.

comment by IlyaShpitser · 2015-09-07T20:33:39.905Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Hanson once said that testablity is not a useful notion in the social sciences. That seems kind of crazy to me, but I am not an economist.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-09-07T20:11:54.565Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I'll defer to Dr. Miller on this if he cares to weigh in, or any other professional economist, but my outsider's impression is that in economics as discussed by Romer the situation is more that contradictory theories are being applied to the same domain, without a serious effort to determine experimentally which (if either) is correct.

Sometimes, yes. And at least one school loudly insists that they don't need no stinkin' experimental evidence, because they're actually doing a deductive formal science. In a sign of uncertain health for economics, they are considered heterodox, but not yet laughed out of polite academia.

comment by 27chaos · 2015-09-04T16:35:24.909Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I have no idea which one you are talking about.

comment by Lumifer · 2015-09-02T16:56:09.964Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

makes the best predictions

Does it actually? Economists rarely make unhedged predictions and then rigorously test how did they turn out.

Finance, though, is a sub-field that provides one with rapid and unambiguous feedback most of the time :-)

comment by gjm · 2015-09-09T12:11:52.123Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Rapid, yes, but extremely noisy. If you make some decision and lose a ton of money, that doesn't mean it was a bad decision; maybe you just got unlucky.

comment by Lumifer · 2015-09-09T16:38:00.910Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

but extremely noisy

No, not usually, at least for common to me values of "extremely" :-) Finance does not require you to select high-variance bets :-)

If you make some decision and lose a ton of money, that doesn't mean it was a bad decision; maybe you just got unlucky.

True, but if your actual outcomes are "extremely noisy" you need better risk management which happens to be part of finance.

comment by gjm · 2015-09-09T19:35:54.113Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

What's noisy is the information you get rapidly, not necessarily the outcomes. If you (stupidly, of course) buy and short-sell the same amount of some asset, your outcome is noiseless but the information you get from watching what actually happens to the asset is still noisy.

comment by Lumifer · 2015-09-09T19:40:59.070Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

What's noisy is the information you get rapidly

Doesn't that entirely depend on what kind of information you are interested in?

comment by gjm · 2015-09-09T19:47:16.790Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Sure. If, for instance, you decide that the information you want to get from watching your investments is the value of pi, then provided you compute it in the right way (e.g., by ignoring your investments and summing a rapidly convergent series) it won't be noisy at all.

I assume you mean something distinctly less trivial than that, but I'm not sure what. I'd have thought that in a typical case the feedback you're seeking is something like "is this trading strategy I'm using a good one?" Meaning: "if I continue to use it, will I make money?". I have never worked at an investment bank or hedge fund, but my impression is that usually it takes some time before the answer to that question becomes clear, if it ever does. (The fact that the market is changing beneath your feet as you observe it doesn't make that any easier, of course.)

comment by Lumifer · 2015-09-09T19:56:34.373Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I'd have thought that in a typical case the feedback you're seeking is something like "is this trading strategy I'm using a good one?"

Yes, that's a fair example.

my impression is that usually it takes some time before the answer to that question becomes clear, if it ever does

Nope, people who can't figure out the answer to this question fairly quickly go out of business on about the same time scale :-)

How quickly actually depends on the trading strategy. One of the big advantages of high-frequency trading, for example, is that the trader will know there is something wrong with the strategy in a matter of hours. He may fine-tune it for months, but whether it works or not is clear very quickly. On the other end of the spectrum are long-term illiquid investments like private equity. In those cases it can, indeed, take years before you know whether your choices were good ones.

I would say that typically a few weeks to a couple of months of losses (or a few months of neither making nor losing money) is enough to subject a trading strategy to scrutiny.

comment by gjm · 2015-09-09T21:33:15.373Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Aha. I think our actual misunderstanding was about what counts as "rapid" feedback; I had in mind a shorter timescale than you did.

comment by Lumifer · 2015-09-10T00:03:27.142Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Keep in mind two additional points.

First, we're talking about typically complex strategies that are designed to run for a long time. Usually they accept short-term variation, but think that they'll come out ahead after the noise diversifies away. But trading ideas usually have much faster feedback cycles. For example, if you think that at the moment some asset XYZ is trading cheap because of a temporary imbalance in supply and demand and it will revert to its normal valuation in a few hours -- you'll find out if that idea was correct in a few hours.

Second, the strategies I mentioned have already passed a very high bar -- they convinced a sufficient number of people that they are good enough to commit real money to. At the research stage, figuring out if a strategy looks decent takes a few minutes-- you feed it to a trading simulator based on historical data and look at the results. The strategies in the grandparent post are the equivalent of clinical trials in pharma -- there are already a lot of people convinced they would work.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-09-07T20:14:38.087Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Finance, though, is a sub-field that provides one with rapid and unambiguous feedback most of the time :-)

It's also a field in which one can get "positive feedback" (ie: make a profit) by taking completely randomized actions and then just waiting for the world to reward you anyway. Most available studies show that most professional money-managers don't beat the market most of the time. On the whole, making money off macroeconomic growth doesn't yield scientific bona-fides.

comment by Lumifer · 2015-09-08T00:58:58.278Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

one can get "positive feedback" (ie: make a profit) by taking completely randomized actions and then just waiting for the world to reward you anyway.

Heh. Why don't you go try it? Sounds like free money X-/

Besides, aren't you confusing finance and marketing?

comment by [deleted] · 2015-09-08T12:41:50.946Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Heh. Why don't you go try it? Sounds like free money X-/

Do you not have savings at all, or did you actually just say you've put no portion of your savings in market-tracking index funds?

comment by Vaniver · 2015-09-08T13:37:05.412Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Market-tracking index funds are decidedly non-random. Lumifer's point is that you're confusing the professional money-manager's ability to make money off people who don't want to manage their own money (i.e. marketing) with the professional money-manager's ability to make money off picking individual stocks (i.e. finance), which on average does not exist. The money-management field does not represent 'free money' in that you need to actively market for clients, and there is not free money to be had in doing mediocre money management with your own money.

The point that you were trying to make, that there's money to made simply by having capital and investing it in the entire economy as a whole, doesn't seem like a knock-down objection to Lumifer's point; by watching how my index fund holdings are doing, I am getting rapid and unambiguous feedback about how the overall economy is doing relative to various segments or other holdings.

comment by Lumifer · 2015-09-08T16:23:36.855Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

did you actually just say

Did I actually say? Quote me.

Let me also point out three different things and note that they are different.

Thing one is financial services. They are services -- they provide you with something in exchange for some sort of a fee. For example, providing an index-tracking mutual fund is a service. If you want to use this service, you pay for it and if the service is sufficiently popular, the provider makes a profit. This is not different in principle from buying the services of, say, a gardener or a car mechanic. Of course, some providers make inflated claims about their services, but that's hardly limited to finance.

Thing two is investment/trading where you are trying to, basically, extract (more) money out of a market.

Thing three is putting capital to work which, strictly speaking, doesn't even require markets. If you have some value and you put that value to productive use, you can expect (subject to a large number of caveats) to get some profit. This is not even finance, but basic economics.

Note that in none of these cases anyone is "taking completely randomized actions" or is guaranteed a profit.

comment by VoiceOfRa · 2015-09-03T03:52:15.254Z · score: 2 (6 votes) · LW · GW

As scientists, we have to hold ourselves to a standard that requires us to reach a consensus about which model is right, and then to move on to other questions.

This is an example Goodhart's law. Real sciences of course ultimately reach a consensus around the truth, but trying for consensus for the sake of consensus is likely to result in a consensus around a false belief being reached.

comment by Lumifer · 2015-09-03T04:19:24.984Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

but trying for consensus for the sake of consensus

I think the aim is not consensus, but consistency. If two camps hold irreconcilable views, one of them is wrong and it's highly useful to know which one. The fact that both views have some domains where they seem to work better than the other is not a good excuse.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-09-07T20:10:14.776Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

If two camps hold irreconcilable views, one of them is wrong and it's highly useful to know which one.

Unless of course you're operating in a situation best modelled by paraconsistent logic.

But finding that out would require looking.

comment by Lumifer · 2015-09-08T00:57:35.858Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Unless of course you're operating in a situation best modelled by paraconsistent logic.

Would you care to provide some examples along with arguments why paraconsistent logic is the best way to model them?

comment by VoiceOfRa · 2015-09-04T01:38:05.308Z · score: -2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I think the aim is not consensus, but consistency.

Consistency with what. If you mean consistency with the truth, I agree. However, the context talks about consistency among expert positions, which is what is normally called consensus. Downvoted for introducing terminology for seemingly no purpose other than to confuse the issue.

If two camps hold irreconcilable views, one of them is wrong and it's highly useful to know which one.

True, however, pushing for consensus or consistency will not tell you which one is wrong. Rather it will result in one of them being declared "wrong", not necessarily the one that actually is.

The fact that both views have some domains where they seem to work better than the other is not a good excuse.

Ok, did you mean to write this in reply to some other comment?

comment by Lumifer · 2015-09-04T01:44:59.417Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Consistency with what

Internal consistency of the science as a body of knowledge. "Consistency with the truth" is better expressed by the simple adjective "true".

It's not consensus either. Consistency is a property of a theory (or a set of theories). Consensus is a property of a set of experts.

pushing for consensus or consistency will not tell you which one is wrong

No, but it will provide impetus and motivation to find out which one is wrong.

comment by Daniel_Burfoot · 2015-09-26T22:14:55.696Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Romer goes on to write:

Persistent disagreement is a sign that some of the participants in a discussion are not committed to the norms of science.

He should reread Kuhn. Kuhn says that the cause of persistent disagreement is usually the lack of a relevant and workable scientific paradigm which can identify important problems, resolve disputes, and thereby mandate researchers to come to consensus. Romer's use of the phrase "the norms of science" indicates that he believes in a singular, universal, monolithic set of principles which is valid for all types of scientific inquiry. But economists obviously cannot use the same principles as physicists, simply because they cannot run experiments. What Romer is really complaining about is that there is no good paradigm for economics, but that's not anyone's fault - the discovery and articulation of a paradigm is as difficult as doing the science that the paradigm supports. A more valid criticism of the field would be "We are trying to do science without a strong enough paradigm, and the weakness of the paradigm is preventing us from resolving our disagreements definitively. Instead of trying to do more research along the same old lines, we should go back to the philosophical foundations and re-examine what it means to do economics."

comment by Cyan · 2015-09-27T19:36:56.172Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

This is a field in which the discoverer of the theorem that rational agents cannot disagree was given the highest possible honours...

comment by anna_macdonald · 2015-10-21T16:28:06.411Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

if we want economics to be a science

I've been wondering lately whether it is possible for economics to get a more empirical foundation. Clearly, a serious difficulty in the field is our lack of having a way for doing controlled trials. Does anyone know if anyone has tried bribing people to live in small-towns/enclaves (one to serve as control) for a time to see if we can isolate some effects at small levels that may or may not scale up? Or is this just too ridiculously impractical? (Or just too expensive?)

comment by Lumifer · 2015-10-21T16:36:20.285Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

lack of having a way for doing controlled trials

That's not true. Economics (in particular, microeconomics) can and actually does do a lot of controlled trials. I don't think that's the problem. Consider psychology -- it does a LOT of controlled trials and generates a very impressive amount of garbage.

comment by anna_macdonald · 2015-10-21T20:21:59.545Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

microeconomics) can and actually does do a lot of controlled trials.

Do you happen to know anywhere I can read simplified (layman-readable) results of some of these?

Psychology has recently been implicated in the "can't reproduce your results" scandal, suggesting that a lot of the garbage they generate is due, more or less, to pressure to publish, bias towards confirming expectations, and insufficient safeguards. Do microeconomics trials suffer the same problems?

comment by Lumifer · 2015-10-21T20:27:33.895Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

A couple of links.

comment by anna_macdonald · 2015-10-22T03:33:23.978Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Found... Database for registering economic controlled trials and a (unpublished?) paper that suggests economic RCTs have more problems than medical trials.

comment by anna_macdonald · 2015-10-22T00:13:53.382Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Excellent, thank you!

comment by AspiringRationalist · 2015-09-03T01:43:53.098Z · score: 12 (18 votes) · LW · GW

In 1736 I lost one of my sons, a fine boy of four years old, by the small-pox, taken in the common way. I long regretted bitterly, and still regret that I had not given it to him by inoculation. This I mention for the sake of parents who omit that operation, on the supposition that they should never forgive themselves if a child died under it; my example showing that the regret may be the same either way, and that, therefore, the safer should be chosen.

Ben Franklin

comment by Zubon · 2015-09-03T04:26:59.800Z · score: 5 (9 votes) · LW · GW

Dupe

comment by g_pepper · 2015-09-03T03:34:46.460Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Great quote, upvoted.

On a related note, the 9/7/2015 New Yorker has a lengthy article on the Salem Witchcraft Trials. The support of the trials provided by Cotton Mather is discussed at some length. The article also talks about Mather's advocacy for smallpox inoculations. That advocacy turned out to be just as controversial as his advocacy for the witchcraft trials; it led to someone tossing a bomb into Mather's window in November, 1721.

It is an interesting article and worth reading.

comment by elharo · 2015-09-02T09:51:20.551Z · score: 12 (12 votes) · LW · GW

Our ideal in crafting an argument is a skeptical but friendly audience, suitable to the context. A skeptical audience is questioning of our observations, not swayed by emotional appeals, but not so skeptical as to be dismissive. The ideal audience is curious; humble, but not stupid. It is an idealized version of ourselves at our best,

Max Shron, Thinking with Data, O'Reily 2014

comment by hairyfigment · 2015-09-04T01:46:25.933Z · score: 11 (13 votes) · LW · GW

It would be nice to think that you can trust powerful people who are aware that power corrupts. But this turns out not to be the case.

comment by hairyfigment · 2015-09-04T01:47:03.482Z · score: 4 (8 votes) · LW · GW

Until this day, Hussein still does not like government. He likes the people and the Party, but believes it is difficult for the government to judge fairly. Hussein observed individuals described as "kind and gentle" before serving in the government who subsequently became the opposite after their appointments to government positions.

  • FBI interrogation, via link above
comment by [deleted] · 2015-09-07T20:06:23.373Z · score: -3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

It's a thread for rationality quotes, not irrationality quotes.

comment by Lumifer · 2015-09-16T15:29:51.406Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

What I’m objecting to here is the idea—encouraged, I fear, by lots and lots of statistics textbooks, including my own, that you can routinely learn eternal truths about human nature via these little tabletop experiments.

Andrew Gelman, The aching desire for regular scientific breakthroughs

comment by Zubon · 2015-09-03T03:13:55.717Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

As a rule, news is a distraction from worthy intellectual pursuits.

-- Bryan Caplan, expanded here

comment by 27chaos · 2015-09-20T17:01:41.505Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

I believe in articulate discussion (in monologue or dialogue) of how one solves problems, of why one goofed that one, of what gaps or deformations exist in one's knowledge and of what could be done about it. I shall defend this belief against two quite distinct objections. One objection says: "it's impossible to verbalize; problems are solved by intuitive acts of insight and these cannot be articulated." The other objection says: "it's bad to verbalize; remember the centipede who was paralyzed when the toad asked which leg came after which."

J.S. Bruner tells us (in his book Towards a Theory of Instruction) that he finds words and diagrams "impotent" in getting a child to ride a bicycle. But while his evidence shows (at best) that some words and diagrams are impotent, he suggests the conclusion that all words and diagrams are impotent. The interesting conjecture is this: the impotence of words and diagrams used by Bruner is explicable by Bruner's cultual origins; the vocabulary and conceptual framework of classical psychology is simply inadequate for the description of such dynamic processes as riding a bicycle. To push the rhetoric further, I suspect that if Bruner tried to write a program to make an IBM 360 drive a radio controlled motorcycle, he would have to conclude (for the sake of consistency) that the order code of the 360 was impotent for this task. Now, in our laboratory we have studied how people balance bicycles and more complicated devices such as unicycles and circus balls. There is nothing complex or mysterious or undescribable about these processes. We can describe them in a non-impotent way provided that a suitable descriptive system has been set up in advance. Key components of the descriptive system rest on concepts like: the idea of a "first order" or "linear" theory in which control variables can be assumed to act independently; or the idea of feedback.

A fundamental problem for the theory of mathematical education is to identify and name the concepts needed to enable the beginner to discuss in mathematical thinking in a clear articulate way.

-- Seymour Papert, distinguished mathematician, educator, computer scientist, and AI researcher, in his 1971 essay "Teaching Children to be Mathematicians vs. Teaching about Mathematics".

comment by [deleted] · 2015-09-17T13:39:51.866Z · score: 6 (10 votes) · LW · GW

“Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.”

  • Marcus Aurelius
comment by John_Maxwell (John_Maxwell_IV) · 2015-09-16T07:57:24.851Z · score: 5 (7 votes) · LW · GW

I sought good judgment mostly by collecting instances of bad judgment, then pondering ways to avoid such outcomes... I became so avid a collector of instances of bad judgment that I paid no attention to boundaries between professional territories. After all, why should I search for some tiny, unimportant, hard-to-find new stupidity in my own field when some large, important, easy-to-find stupidity was just over the fence in the other fellow's professional territory? Besides, I could already see that real-world problems didn't neatly lie within territorial boundaries. They jumped right across. And I was dubious of any approach that, when two things were inextricably intertwined and interconnected, would try and think about one thing but not the other. I was afraid, if I tried any such restricted approach, that I would end up, in the immortal words of John L. Lewis, "with no brain at all, just a neck that had haired over."

- Charlie Munger (Warren Buffet's partner) in Poor Charlie's Almanack (The Psychology of Human Misjudgment section)

comment by tut · 2015-09-16T10:35:35.573Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

This feels very much like a setup for saying "But I was wrong, you need experience and other background knowledge to even understand these things" or something like that. Is that the continuation in the book?

comment by Vaniver · 2015-09-16T15:33:27.768Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

No. Munger and Buffet both claim that a huge part of their success has simply been avoiding failures, especially of the type caused by poor rationality. Munger in particular was very taken with the same Heuristics and Biases literature that informed much of the Sequences.

comment by CCC · 2015-09-16T09:48:23.731Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

why should I search for some tiny, unimportant, hard-to-find new stupidity in my own field

Surely that's precisely the sort that's most useful to find, categorise, and note down as an example to avoid later...

comment by Lumifer · 2015-09-16T14:36:08.863Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I don't know about hard to find, but surely searching for large and important stupidities is more useful..?

comment by CCC · 2015-09-17T08:16:35.882Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

There's some usefulness to it; but the thing is, if it's an easy to find stupidity, then it's a stupidity that you already know to be a stupidity. It teaches you comparatively little about good or bad judgment.

A hard-to-find stupidity is one that's subtle and difficult to recognise. It's one that is not obviously a stupidity, one that you do not easily recognise on sight. Therefore, a hard-to-find stupidity will teach you more about the difference between good and bad judgment than an easy-to-find one...

Also, the importance of the stupidities is largely irrelevant to the stated goal - the importance of the consequences has little effect on how good or bad the judgment behind the decision was.

(Now, if you're trying to fix stupidities, instead of learning from them, then the large, important, easy-to-find ones are the ones to look at...)

comment by Lumifer · 2015-09-17T15:10:59.301Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

if it's an easy to find stupidity, then it's a stupidity that you already know to be a stupidity. It teaches you comparatively little about good or bad judgment

Eh, I don't know about that. Many similar stupidities look radically different in different contexts. It's hard to overstate the effect of formulations, frameworks, and angles of view on the perception of basically the same things. I think what Charlie Munger was doing was looking for patterns which he could then discern in unexpected places.

Easy-to-find vs hard -to-find is mostly a difference in context. Put Waldo into a picture of a night sky and, well...

comment by CCC · 2015-09-29T14:14:31.143Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Hmmm. You are right that an easy-to-find stupidity in one case may be hard to find in another. But finding it in the easy case does not always make it all that much easier to find in the hard case - finding Waldo in a picture of the night sky does not make a Where's Waldo book any easier.

...of course, knowing what Waldo looks like does make it easier to know when you have found him.

comment by tut · 2015-09-16T15:23:27.752Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Unless the other fellow isn't an idiot, so that "large, important, easy-to-find stupidity in the other fellow's professional territory" is correspondingly more likely to be imaginary.

comment by Lumifer · 2015-09-16T15:43:33.214Z · score: 1 (5 votes) · LW · GW

"Most advances in science come when a person for one reason or another is forced to change fields" -- Peter Borden

comment by gjm · 2015-09-17T08:57:44.084Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

That sounds clever, but is it actually anywhere near true?

I went to the Wikipedia "timeline of science" page and sampled a bunch of 20th-century advances. Maybe about 10. Not one of them had anything to do with anyone being forced to change fields.

I have no idea who Peter Borden is (nor for that matter any idea whether he actually said it: "Most quotations on the internet are made up" -- Abraham Lincoln) but I would at this point suspect him of being too ready to believe things merely because they sound good.

comment by hairyfigment · 2015-09-17T09:27:17.097Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I don't think it's remotely true. Only Newton comes to mind as a possible example, and only if we accept the claim that he wouldn't have written so much about physics if he could have published his critique of the divinity of Jesus.

comment by Lumifer · 2015-09-17T15:14:05.744Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

That sounds clever, but is it actually anywhere near true?

It was a convenient quote, but I admit it overstates its case. A more defensible version would probably sound like "A disproportionate amount of advances in science comes from outsiders to the field".

The three names which pop into my head without going to Google are Schliemann (and Calvert), Wegener, and Sokal :-)

comment by gjm · 2015-09-17T15:58:01.996Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

So, Schliemann and Calvert were indeed amateurs. Wegener seems to have been as much polymath as field-switcher (aside from continental drift, he worked in meteorology and astronomy). Sokal's work in mathematics and physics seems (1) not particularly, ah, boundary-transgressing and (2) not especially notable, so I guess you are referring to his foray into bullshit-hunting; that was indeed successful but I don't see that it was a major advance in science.

This doesn't seem like a disproportionate amount. In fact, I would naively expect quite a lot of major advances to come from that sort of cross-fertilization, and I was rather surprised to find no field-switchers in my sample. So perhaps we can amend it to "Somewhat fewer scientific advances than one would expect come from people switching fields for any reason"?

comment by Lumifer · 2015-09-17T16:24:30.345Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

As I said, this was just off the top of my head without any Google assists. I suspect at least part of this idea goes back to Popper and his necessity of periodic revolutions to clear out the deadwood and establish the new base for advancing further.

I don't expect that trying to make a hard fact out of my observation is going to be useful. For one, to make it at least falsifiable we'd need hard definitions of "disproportionate" and "advances", plus we're already talking of expectations, so it's going to be either a mess or a pedantic slog. If you think the observation is misleading, well, it's not the first time we disagree on fuzzy things :-)

comment by gjm · 2015-09-17T18:07:02.463Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I also don't expect that trying to make a hard fact out of the observation is going to be useful; but not because some of the words in it are fuzzy, but because any halfway reasonable definition of them is going to make it flatly wrong. At any rate, I hope we can agree that the original claim in the original quotation is flatly wrong.

comment by Luke_A_Somers · 2015-09-25T18:46:11.607Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

On the other hand, the other fellow didn't get the advantage of hindsight!

comment by VoiceOfRa · 2015-09-25T23:07:36.446Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

That is a potentially valid reason, assuming you can point to what specifically the other fellow failed to foresee.

comment by Daniel_Burfoot · 2015-09-26T21:26:04.487Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I would love to see Munger's list of Bad Judgment Episodes. Or maybe we could have a LW thread enumerating historical examples of bad judgment.

comment by 27chaos · 2015-09-23T06:31:42.935Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I am suggesting that we move too quickly to the view that rationalism is always an assault on the romantic soul, that it is a symptom of anxiety about our own madly passionate natures, or that it is a flight from love. Instead, rationalism may have its adaptive side, one that seeks to reinforce the ego structures needed to experience the passionate intensity of human emotions. It is possible to see rationalism not as an escape from romanticism, not as a defensive maneuver to protect the self from the excesses of desire, but instead as an effort to master, to fully experience, our passionate natures.

-- Anne C. Dailey, in her paper Liberalism's Ambivalence.

comment by gjm · 2015-09-23T16:15:56.178Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

This appears to me to be using "rationalism" to denote something much "weaker" than, e.g., LW-style rationalism.

(Where by "weaker" I mean not "worse" but "having fewer claims and commitments".)

comment by Luke_A_Somers · 2015-09-25T18:54:26.969Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

At least it's working against the Straw Vulcan image.

And if by 'our passionate natures' one means 'fulfilling the values one would wish to have if one thought clearer, etc.' then it seems rather closely aligned. Of course, it doesn't - but it's not so far off.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-09-19T08:31:17.470Z · score: 4 (6 votes) · LW · GW

I recommend that before setting out to beat the market, you worry about whether you’ll be able to do as well as the market. The typical investor does worse than the market averages, usually due to buying more when the market is high than when it is low. Take a few minutes to imagine that you will be influenced by the mood of other investors to be pessimistic when the market has been doing poorly, and optimistic when the market has been doing well. Also imagine that you will have more money available to invest when the market is high than when it is low. If you’re confident that you can avoid these problems, please stop reading this post – you’re either good enough to not need my advice, or deluded enough that you ought to start somewhere else.

The efficient market hypothesis is an approximation that is good enough for many purposes, such as telling you that you shouldn’t be confident that you can beat the market by much unless you’ve got a really good track record [1].Many people infer from this that any effort to beat the market will be wasteful. Why do I disagree?The simplest answer is that if there were no inefficiencies in the market, the people who are making the market efficient wouldn’t have incentives to continue doing so.

Diversifying across countries reduces some hard-to-measure risks. One of the most thoughtless mistakes investors make is to invest mostly in stocks of their own country, when it makes more sense to underweight the country whose economy their other income is most correlated with. Betting on one country might make some sense if you have good reason to think it will do better, but you’re more likely to do it for signaling purposes or due to availability bias.

Note that most fund managers are experts at something. But that something is typically some form of “doing what the customer asks”, not beating the market. Amateur investors who try to pay experts to beat the market usually fail by mistaking luck for skill.

-Bayesian Investor Blog

comment by lmm · 2015-10-04T23:13:55.794Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I'm not convinced on the international diversification example, particularly if the best argument is "some hard-to-measure risks". Most of the time the things you want to buy are in your own country, so any diversification is taking on a large foreign exchange risk.

comment by ChristianKl · 2015-09-17T11:44:32.496Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Three of the most important [aspects of science] are that (1) science employs methods of systematic empiricism; (2) it aims for knowledge that is publicly verifiable; and (3) it seeks problems that are empirically solvable and that yield testable theories.

Keith E. Stanovich in How to Think Straight About Psychology

comment by ChristianKl · 2015-09-17T11:43:08.947Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

In an important sense, scientific knowledge does not exist at all until it has been submitted to the scientific community for criticism and empirical testing by others.

Keith E. Stanovich in How to Think Straight About Psychology

comment by VoiceOfRa · 2015-09-17T05:48:15.598Z · score: 4 (10 votes) · LW · GW

A man who lies to himself is often the first to take offense. It sometimes feels very good to take offense, doesn't it? And surely he knows that no one has offended him, and that he himself has invented the offense and told lies just for the beauty of it, that he has exaggerated for the sake of effect, that he has picked on a word and made a mountain out of a pea -- he knows all of that, and still he is the first to take offense, he likes feeling offended, it gives him great pleasure, and thus he reaches the point of real hostility

"The Brothers Karamazov", Dostoyevsky

comment by WalterL · 2015-09-02T17:57:20.762Z · score: 4 (6 votes) · LW · GW

The barriers are not erected which can say to aspiring talents and industry, 'Thus far and no farther.'

Ludwig van Beethoven

Literature and Music in the Atlantic World, 1767-1867

comment by username2 · 2015-09-11T19:14:03.191Z · score: -2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

“The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough. They’re there to stop the other people.”

Randy Pausch, The Last Lecture

comment by tut · 2015-09-12T08:40:17.120Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Why are you using the username account to (re)post trivial determination-signaling quotes? If you are afraid that this will be downvoted, that's because you realize that it is no good, in which case you shouldn't post it. If not, why don't you use your own account?

comment by entirelyuseless · 2015-09-12T14:16:26.515Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Downvotes are not 100% correlated with bad content.

comment by tut · 2015-09-13T13:27:37.132Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

In general, sure, there are several reasons why something might be downvoted. But for that comment, the only one I could see any relevance of is that it is a bad quote.

comment by hairyfigment · 2015-09-04T01:41:09.228Z · score: 3 (7 votes) · LW · GW

How is the world ruled and how do wars start? Diplomats tell lies to journalists and then believe what they read.

  • Karl Kraus, via.
comment by [deleted] · 2015-09-03T13:27:54.063Z · score: 3 (7 votes) · LW · GW

In computer science, a problem is said to have optimal substructure if an optimal solution can be constructed efficiently from optimal solutions of its subproblems. This property is used to determine the usefulness of dynamic programming and greedy algorithms for a problem.[1]

Typically, a greedy algorithm is used to solve a problem with optimal substructure if it can be proved by induction that this is optimal at each step.[1] Otherwise, provided the problem exhibits overlapping subproblems as well, dynamic programming is used. If there are no appropriate greedy algorithms and the problem fails to exhibit overlapping subproblems, often a lengthy but straightforward search of the solution space is the best alternative

wiki: optimal substructure.

comment by 50lbsofstorkmeat · 2015-09-25T14:28:14.940Z · score: 6 (8 votes) · LW · GW

As you've posted eight quotes this month, I'm downvoting your three worst quotes. The rule against posting too many quotes is there for a reason.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-10-01T01:21:19.612Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

That is just. Thank you for bringing this indiscretion to my attention.

comment by elharo · 2015-09-02T09:55:07.434Z · score: 3 (7 votes) · LW · GW

if the Taj Mahal happens to be made of white tiles held to brown granite by tan grotte, there is nothing to prevent you from affirming that the Taj Mahal is white and the Taj Mahal is brown and the Taj Mahal is tan, and claiming both tan and brown to lie in the area of significance space we’ve marked as ‘nonwhite’—”

“Wait a second: Part of the Taj Mahal is white, and part of the Taj Mahal is brown, and part of the Taj Mahal is—”

“The solution’s even simpler than that. You see, just like ‘white,’ the words ‘Taj Mahal’ have a range of significance that extends, on one side, at least as far as the gates have set their boundaries around the same area. Treating soft-edged interpenetrating clouds as though they were hard-edged bricks does not offer much help if you want to build a real discussion of how to build a real house. Ordinary, informal, nonrigorous language overcomes all these problems, however, with a bravura, panache and elegance that leave the formal logician panting and applauding

--Samuel R. Delaney, Trouble on Triton, An Ambiguous Heterophobia, 1976

comment by cody-bryce · 2015-09-20T01:28:02.330Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

"Fortune favors the prepared mind." -Louis Pasteur

comment by VoiceOfRa · 2015-09-18T03:06:33.239Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

But maybe making everyone equal is not what we are looking for. Maybe we are looking for bringing everyone up, and everyone doing the best they can do, rather than only bringing up those at the lower end.

Stuart Ritchie

comment by ChristianKl · 2015-09-12T08:43:11.092Z · score: 2 (6 votes) · LW · GW

We really have to think of reasoning the way we think of romance, it takes two to tango. There has to be a communication.

Daniel Dennett in TAM 2014 - Panel: Can Rationality Be Taught?

comment by [deleted] · 2015-09-03T13:37:53.738Z · score: 2 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Tomorrow is the busiest day of the week -

spanish proverb.

Originally read in the rescuetime website inside my account.

comment by VoiceOfRa · 2015-09-03T03:58:55.324Z · score: 2 (14 votes) · LW · GW

The free-market system has salient flaws and hidden benefits. All other systems have hidden flaws and salient benefits.

Nassim Taleb

comment by Manfred · 2015-09-04T04:11:55.888Z · score: 1 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Well, if everyone knew it had hidden flaws, I guess they wouldn't be hidden, eh?

comment by ChristianKl · 2015-09-12T08:47:53.818Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Well, if everyone knew it had hidden flaws, I guess they wouldn't be hidden, eh?

No, that's not the case. I know with high certainity that the version of Firefox I use is vunerable to various 0-day attacks. At the same time I can't point to specific ones. Specific one's are hidden.

comment by Luke_A_Somers · 2015-09-25T18:49:40.218Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

If everyone already knew everything I was about to say, there wouldn't be much point in saying it either.

comment by philh · 2015-10-02T13:49:34.301Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Well, that depends. Does everyone know that everyone knows that someone has blue eyes?

comment by [deleted] · 2015-09-26T20:01:39.882Z · score: 1 (9 votes) · LW · GW

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.

Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower.

-- Karl Marx, in A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right

comment by hairyfigment · 2015-09-29T07:39:34.031Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

So, I think this quote does have a slight amount of value for rationality. But driving away most of Earth's population from existential risk (or at least from LW and MIRI) would appear to have much lower E(U) than doing nothing.

What happened to the idea of rewriting the Sequences to remove all religious examples? (This is a real question.)

comment by TheAncientGeek · 2015-10-05T08:54:24.692Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

What about including the idea that religious thinking isn't limited to religion? After all. religious people aren't wired up in some fundamentally different way to everyone else.

comment by gjm · 2015-09-29T11:12:10.621Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I suppose Marx (if brought suitably up to date) would reply that the downside of driving some people away would be more than compensated by the upside of liberating some people from their religious delusions and thus enabling them to think more clearly about existential risk.

(I've no idea whether he'd be right.)

There's a comment from one of the people responsible for the Sequences ebook, arguing that it wouldn't be feasible to remove all the anti-religious material and speculating on whether re-ordering what's there might make it less of an immediate turn-off for religious readers.

comment by CCC · 2015-09-29T14:24:41.405Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

As a religious person myself, I have to say that's the one part of the Sequences that seems to me to be poorly fitted. (I haven't read them all, but in the ones I have read). Its inclusion seems to follow one of two patterns.

The first pattern is, "all religion is false and I do not have to explain why because it is obvious". These I ignore, as they give me no information to work from. (Your use of the phrase "religious delusions" I also class under this category).

The second pattern is, "I have known religious people who have fallen into this fallacy, this trap, this way of reasoning poorly, and have used it to support their claims". Again, this tells me nothing about whether or not God exists; it merely tells me that some people's arguments in favour of God's existence are flawed. It means nothing. I can give you a flawed argument for the proposition that 16/64 is equal to 1/4; the fact that my argument is flawed does not make 16/64 == 1/4 false.

...so, as far as I've so far seen, that's pretty much where things stand. The Sequences praise the virtues of clear thought, of looking at evidence before coming to a conclusion, of not writing the line at the bottom of the page until after you have written the argument on the page... and then, in this one matter, insist on giving the line at the bottom of the page and not the argument? It just gives the feeling of being tacked on, an atheist meme somehow caught up where it doesn't, strictly speaking, belong.

...maybe there's something in the parts I haven't yet read that explains this discreprency. I doubt it, because if there was I imagine it would be linked to a lot more often, but it is still possible.

comment by WinterShaker · 2015-09-30T12:56:02.109Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

I think (with the caveat that I've read a lot but not all of the sequences) that it is Yudkowsky's position that religions are specific manifestations of a whole cluster of more general failures of rationality, and that once someone truly internalises all of the best techniques for separating probable truths from probable untruths, it will be more-or-less impossible for that person to remain religious (unless, of course, they are sitting on a mountain of evidence in favour of the existence of one or more gods which has not been made available to the rest of us), and that it will be obvious that the specific claims of religions are false.

So yes, there is not much in there that explicitly rebuts the god hypothesis, but probably the closest thing to what you are looking for is Raising the Sanity Waterline, which lists the ideas that ought to make discarding religions into one of the low-hanging fruits of any attempt at upgrading one's rationality.

comment by Vaniver · 2015-09-30T13:24:44.374Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Comments use markdown syntax, not html, so you're looking for the following:

[Raising the Sanity Waterline,](http://lesswrong.com/lw/1e/raising_the_sanity_waterline/)

Raising the Sanity Waterline,

Similarly, italics are achieved by putting a * in front of and behind the italicized word. You can find more by clicking the "Show help" button in the bottom right.


I would note that at present, "religious" is mostly synonymous with "supernaturalist," but this does not have to be the case. The truth destroys supernaturalism, but whether or not it destroys humanism is unclear. See Feeling Rational for a related discussion.

comment by CCC · 2015-10-05T09:38:50.480Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

probably the closest thing to what you are looking for is Raising the Sanity Waterline which lists the ideas that ought to make discarding religions into one of the low-hanging fruits of any attempt at upgrading one's rationality.

The thing is, if it really was such a low-hanging fruit, then it would seem likely that the most successful scientists would have done so already (there's a lot in rationality which makes it good at science). Since the same article points out the existence of Nobel laureates who are religious in one or other way, I think it is not nearly as obvious a matter as the article suggests...

comment by gjm · 2015-10-05T13:30:41.611Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Religious belief is apparently much less common

  • among scientists than in the general population
  • among very successful scientists than among scientists generally

especially if one defines "religious belief" in a way that makes it have actual consequences for the observable world (e.g., a god who actually affects what happens in the world rather than just winding it up and then leaving it alone).

See e.g. this summary of the results of asking scientists about their beliefs and the letter to Nature that the summary is mostly about. (Note: there's some scope for debate about the interpretation of these results, though I find the arguments at the far end of that link extremely unconvincing.)

[EDITED to fix a wrong link; thanks to CCC for pointing it out.]

comment by CCC · 2015-10-06T09:57:25.599Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I notice that their definition of "greater scientists" - which seems to have been what you referred to as "very successful scientists" - was "members of the National Academy of Sciences". While I have no doubt that one needs to be a pretty great scientist to become a member, the results lead me to wonder whether the membership process for joining the Academy has an atheist bias in it somewhere.

I notice that the figures for scientists generally are more constant from 1914 to 1996, with approximately 60% of scientists expressing "disbelief or doubt in the existence of God" - since the selection of respondents here is not subject to the (potentially biased) membership process of a single organisation, I would give this general figure far greater credence that it shows what it purports to show.

(Also, I think you may have linked the wrong page in your "scope for debate" link - it's linking to the same page as your "this summary" link)

comment by gjm · 2015-10-06T16:25:59.866Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

whether the membership process for joining the Academy has an atheist bias

It's possible. (I suppose new members are nominated and elected by existing members, and people may tend to favour candidates who resemble themselves and be influenced by politics, religion, skin colour, etc., etc., etc.) It would need to be quite a strong bias to produce the reported results in the absence of a tendency for "greater scientists" to be less (conventionally) religious than scientists in general.

The last paragraph of the Larson-Witham letter to Nature looks to me like (weak) evidence against a strong atheistic bias in the NAS, in that if there were such a bias I would expect its public utterances and those of its leaders to be a bit less conciliatory. As I say, weak evidence only.

(There could also be a bias in responses; maybe atheists are more cooperative in surveys or something. I would expect any such bias to be small and it's not obvious to me which way it's more likely to go.)

you may have linked the wrong page

Yup, I did. I've linked the right one now. Sorry about that.

comment by CCC · 2015-10-07T11:47:27.202Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

It's possible. (I suppose new members are nominated and elected by existing members, and people may tend to favour candidates who resemble themselves and be influenced by politics, religion, skin colour, etc., etc., etc.)

Yes, that's the sort of thing I'm thinking of. People (in general) are usually more comfortable associating with people who share their opinions.

The last paragraph of the Larson-Witham letter to Nature looks to me like (weak) evidence against a strong atheistic bias in the NAS, in that if there were such a bias I would expect its public utterances and those of its leaders to be a bit less conciliatory. As I say, weak evidence only.

Very weak evidence; it's easy to be conciliatory if one can also be smugly superior in pointing out how wrong the other party is (which is one possible, not necessarily correct interpretation of the last sentence of that paragraph).

(There could also be a bias in responses; maybe atheists are more cooperative in surveys or something. I would expect any such bias to be small and it's not obvious to me which way it's more likely to go.)

That is a point which I had not considered. I'm not sure which way it would go either (unless they did the survey by phoning people at their homes on a Sunday morning, when many Christians would be at church, but that would just be stupid)

Yup, I did. I've linked the right one now. Sorry about that.

Ah, thanks.

...that Gallup evolution poll at the start seems quite telling. It suggests that the difference between scientists and the general public is entirely in the (much larger) rejection of young-earth creationism. This fits with my expectations (which is probably why I draw attention to it).

comment by gjm · 2015-10-07T14:29:42.271Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Sunday morning, when many Christians would be at church

Don't forget that at that point the atheists are all out at orgies and baby-killing parties. (Seriously: yeah, that would be stupid, and I'm pretty sure they weren't that stupid.)

that Gallup evolution poll

I don't agree with your interpretation of it. The reported numbers (no god : theistic evolution : creationism) go 55:40:5 for scientists and 9:40:46 for the general public; both the no-god and creationism options are very different between those populations.

It's hard to infer anything from only three numbers per distribution, but it looks to me very much like an overall shift, with the similarity of the "theistic evolution" numbers on both sides being basically coincidence.

comment by CCC · 2015-10-08T09:20:07.702Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Don't forget that at that point the atheists are all out at orgies and baby-killing parties.

Really? I would have expected either sleeping late or watching the rugby.

I don't agree with your interpretation of it.

Fair enough. It's only three numbers, that's consistent with thousands of possible reasons.

It's hard to infer anything from only three numbers per distribution, but it looks to me very much like an overall shift, with the similarity of the "theistic evolution" numbers on both sides being basically coincidence.

It's not impossible. I don't see it as a spectrum, though; I see it as three entirely opposing positions. And the young-earth creationists either change their minds when becoming scientists (and since, in their minds, the concept of God is tied up with young-earth creationism, they abandon both) or fail to become scientists entirely.

...actually, now that I think of it, it should be possible to tell the difference between those two ideas, at least. Young-earth creationism is linked to geography in America, right? So if there are less scientists who grew up in in areas where young-earth creationism is more widely known, then that would imply that fewer young-earth creationists become scientists. That, in turn, would imply that my interpretation is incorrect, and there is something about becoming a scientist which makes theistic evolution also less likely than in the general population...

Do you have any idea where these stats can be found?

comment by gjm · 2015-10-08T11:39:01.394Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

sleeping late or watching the rugby

In case it wasn't obvious: I was joking. (I, for one, spend very little of my time at orgies and baby-killing parties.)

three entirely opposing positions

I think actually both views are right. I mean, (1) there is definitely a spectrum there (there is no god - there is a god, who set up the universe and has left it alone since then - there is a god, who mostly leaves the universe alone but sometimes gets involved in subtle ways like inspiring people to do good - there is a god, who mostly leaves the universe alone but sometimes tweaks evolution a bit to arrange for the emergence of a species capable of loving relationship with him - there is a god, who made a world in which life evolves precisely so that he could steer that process in all kinds of ways, which he does - there is a god, whose influence on the variety of life on earth mostly operates through evolution but who also sometimes makes more dramatic changes - there is a god, who directly created lots of different kinds of living thing but who has let them evolve since then, which is responsible for much small-scale variation - there is a god, who created every species separately in recent history, and evolution is just a lie) but (2) the gap between theism and atheism is a particularly big one, and so is the gap between "life is old and basically has common ancestry" and "life is recent and involves lots of special creation" and (3) I'm sure quite a lot of people do flip from near one end to near the other when they change their minds about what gods, if any, exist.

these stats

I worry that they'd be hard to disentangle from other things (e.g., wealthier versus poorer areas, which would affect education and what kinds of jobs people do and so forth; socially entrenched attitudes to academic learning; etc.). I'd guess that (1) there are indeed fewer, and worse, scientists from areas with a lot of young-earth creationism but (2) this doesn't really tell us much about direct influence of science on religion or vice versa, because of all those other factors. There are some US government statistics that might tell you some of what you want to know.

[EDITED to add: If anyone has a clue why this was downvoted, I'd be very interested. It seems so obviously innocuous that I suspect it's VoiceOfRa doing his thing again, but maybe I'm being stupid in some way I'm unable to see.]

comment by CCC · 2015-10-12T10:50:02.831Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

In case it wasn't obvious: I was joking. (I, for one, spend very little of my time at orgies and baby-killing parties.)

I... occasionally find humour in taking things very, very literally even when clearly intended otherwise. (That, and accidental puns. Accidental puns can be hilarious.)

I think actually both views are right. I mean, (1) there is definitely a spectrum there

Alright, yes, you can create a spectrum between "there is a god, who set up the universe and has left it alone since then" and "there is a god, who created every species separately in recent history, and evolution is just a lie" - but I don't think that you can really tack "there is no god" to one end of the spectrum and consider it part of the same thing. That's like saying that there's a spectrum from "planet teeming with life" to "lifeless planet" and then sticking "planet does not exist" onto the lifeless planet end of the spectrum.

but (2) the gap between theism and atheism is a particularly big one

...agreed.

and (3) I'm sure quite a lot of people do flip from near one end to near the other when they change their minds about what gods, if any, exist.

The way I see it, people decide where on the spectrum they think the universe is. And some of them sit on the "evolution is a lie" end. And, if and when they find evidence that evolution is, in fact, not a lie, they don't generally just adjust their position on the spectrum; many of them will rather jump off the spectrum entirely, becoming atheists.

I worry that they'd be hard to disentangle from other things

...you're probably right. A survey could be created to try to avoid these problems, but it would have to be specifically created, simply looking up old stats probably won't do it.

comment by Jiro · 2015-10-13T06:00:23.926Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

That's like saying that there's a spectrum from "planet teeming with life" to "lifeless planet" and then sticking "planet does not exist" onto the lifeless planet end of the spectrum.

You can talk about a spectrum between "planet large enough for life to exist", "planet which is a little smaller which makes it a little harder for life to exist" all the way down to "no planet with no life". You can do that because in this spectrum, the extent to which the planet exists and the chance of life are connected. In the God example, the spectrum is "degree to which things can be explained without God". If you have evolution, there is one less thing that you need God to explain, and you get one step closer to not needing God to explain anything. And with nothing to need God for you can then reject the existence of God.

comment by CCC · 2015-10-13T10:55:47.662Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

You could do a planet-size-spectrum like that; but reversing the analogy would be - I don't know, some sort of spectrum ranging from "God doesn't exist" to "God exists"? That seems a pretty binary set of points to me - how can the state of "God 50% exists" make any sort of sense?

And with nothing to need God for you can then reject the existence of God.

Similarly, if nothing that you ever see requires the existence of Jim, then you can reject the existence of Jim, right?

comment by gjm · 2015-10-13T14:51:36.559Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

how can the state of "God 50% exists" make any sort of sense?

Suppose it turns out that the skeptics are mostly right about Christianity, but that there really was an itinerant preacher called Yeshua in Galilee about 2000 years ago who talked about forgiveness and love and had a reputation for casting out demons and the like; but he didn't really work any miracles, he didn't get crucified, and he certainly didn't rise from the dead.

Then: Did Jesus exist? Well, kinda. Someone existed who's fairly clearly the person the gospels are about. No one existed about whom they're actually accurate accounts. Many of the most important things about "Jesus" don't apply to anyone. While it might feel a bit weird to say something like "Jesus 50% existed" in that case, I think it would give a reasonable idea of the situation.

comment by Lumifer · 2015-10-13T14:58:34.102Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Then: Did Jesus exist? Well, kinda.

I don't think manipulating definitions can (or should) give rise to probability claims along the lines of "Jesus 50% existed".

Jesus-the-Son-of-God and Jesus-the-itinerant-preacher are two very different people/concepts. No, they will not blend.

comment by gjm · 2015-10-13T22:08:42.420Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I wouldn't want to defend the "50% existed" claim too seriously, but note that the discussion here was never really about explicit claims of that kind. It was about whether it's appropriate to consider, e.g., "there is a god who gets involved in biological evolution" intermediate between "there is no god" and "there is a god who created every kind of living thing ex nihilo". I say yes; CCC says no. The affirmative answer doesn't require, e.g., being willing to say that a god who never does anything "50% exists"; only regarding a less-active god as in some sense intermediate between a more-active god and no god.

comment by CCC · 2015-10-14T09:51:03.567Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

You can definitely plot all three points on the same graph - you can even plot them such that the distance from "there is no god" to "there is a god who created every kind of living thing ex nihilo" is greater than the distance from "there is a god who gets involved in biological evolution" to either of the two aforementioned points. That can all be done perfectly sensibly.

My claim is simply that the three points can't be colinear on that graph.

...I hope that makes it a bit clearer.

comment by gjm · 2015-10-14T10:42:52.859Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

It seems to me that you can plot them wherever you want to, so this is really a question of aesthetics more than anything else. Or is there some actual consequence that follows from one or another answer to this question?

comment by CCC · 2015-10-15T09:49:54.467Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

...it would be a bit like plotting 0, 1 and i colinearly. (I assume you're familiar with complex numbers?)

comment by gjm · 2015-10-15T13:43:14.026Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Yes, very familiar with complex numbers, thanks. But, I repeat, you can plot what you want however you want; the question is whether it's helpful, and that will depend on the application. (Suppose the values taken by your dependent variable are all on the circle of radius 1/sqrt(2) centred at (1+i)/2. Then plotting 0, 1, and i collinearly may make a whole lot of sense, though you might actually want to call them -3pi/4, -pi/4 and pi/4 respectively.)

comment by CCC · 2015-10-16T10:29:19.554Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

(Suppose the values taken by your dependent variable are all on the circle of radius 1/sqrt(2) centred at (1+i)/2. Then plotting 0, 1, and i collinearly may make a whole lot of sense, though you might actually want to call them -3pi/4, -pi/4 and pi/4 respectively.)

I reluctantly concede the point, but firmly maintain that calling them -3pi/4, -pi/4 and pi/4 respectively would make a lot more sense.

comment by CCC · 2015-10-14T09:58:06.296Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

...I wouldn't describe that as "God 50% exists". I'd describe that as "someone with strong similarity to the biblical Jesus existed".

To take an analogy, again, let us consider Dr. Joseph Bell. Dr. Bell was a medical school lecturer who emphasised the importance of close observation in making a diagnosis, and made a game of observing a stranger and deducing his occupation and recent activities. He was also the inspiration for the fictional character of Sherlock Holmes (who was famous for doing the same).

Does this imply that Sherlock Holmes 50% existed? No. Sherlock Holmes 0% existed; Dr. Joseph Bell 100% existed.

comment by gjm · 2015-10-14T10:47:07.615Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

As I think I said somewhere else in this discussion, the way this issue arose wasn't by anyone actually claiming in so many words that "God 50% exists" is a sensible thing to say. Although I've kinda-sorta defended saying some things of that kind, I agree that it's not actually the best way to describe any state of affairs I can envisage. The actual question, IIRC, was whether it's reasonable to regard theistic evolution as intermediate between special creation and naturalistic evolution. Those are all positions that can be held by theists (though in practice not many theists embrace naturalistic evolution) and seeing them as points on a continuum really doesn't require one to endorse saying "God 50% exists" in any possible world.

comment by Jiro · 2015-10-13T15:20:10.781Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

The state isn't "God 50% exists" but "there is evidence which indicates that God might exist, but the evidence is 50% as good (or there is 50% as much of it) as the evidence at the far end of the spectrum". There's a continuous line from lots of evidence for God, to some evidence for God, to no evidence for God.

comment by CCC · 2015-10-14T09:59:20.258Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

That is a sensible axis, and you can move along it in a straight line, yes.

It's just a different axis to either of the ones I was talking about.

comment by gjm · 2015-10-12T11:07:39.919Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

humour in taking things very, very literally

Ah, OK. Yes, I do that too. I just thought I should check :-).

I don't think you can really tack "there is no god" to one end of the spectrum

"No god" and "god who does nothing" are very different metaphysically but have the exact same observable consequences, and evidence for or against one will equally be evidence for or against the other. I don't see that it's obviously inadmissible to put them next to one another. Of course the more interesting notions of god are ones that do do something (even if only to create a universe according to their whims rather than according to the dictates of some "mindless" physical theory), but we've already agreed (I think) that those can be put on a spectrum that has "perfectly inactive god" on it.

The way I see it

My perspective is a little different. They decide the following three interlinked things: (1) where the observable features of the universe lie on that spectrum, (2) what their religious position is, and (3) how the universe should look if #2 is correct. They generally decide these so that they're reasonably consistent with one another. Then if they learn new things about #1, they may change either #2 or #3 to make it match; if they change #2 they may convert or deconvert; if they change #3 they may change their theology or their ideas about physics or something.

comment by TheAncientGeek · 2015-10-13T12:19:44.954Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

No god" and "god who does nothing" are very different metaphysically but have the exact same observable consequences, and evidence for or against one will equally be evidence for or against the other.

"There is a single universe" and "we are in one branch of a multiverse, but can't access the other branches" are very different metaphysically but have the exact same observable consequences, and evidence for or against one will equally be evidence for or against the other.

That's a thing about metaphysics, not a thing about theology.

comment by gjm · 2015-10-13T13:34:41.171Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

That's a thing about metaphysics, not a thing about theology.

I agree. Were you expecting me not to?

(On the other hand, if some particular believer believes in a perfectly inactive god then that is a thing about theology as well as metaphysics. Is that meant to be a problem somehow?)

comment by CCC · 2015-10-13T10:44:20.570Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

"No god" and "god who does nothing" are very different metaphysically but have the exact same observable consequences, and evidence for or against one will equally be evidence for or against the other.

While I agree that there will be no observable difference, you're talking about two different axes here. One axis is "how much God does", and most of your spectrum is running along this axis. The other axis is "whether God exists", and treating that as part of the same axis is an error. (Admittedly, the axes are related - the idea of a universe where God doesn't exist yet is nonetheless active is rather absurd - but they are still not the same axis).

My perspective is a little different.

...the way you've phrased #3 reduces your argument to a tautology on close reading (specifically, #1 and #3 must always match regardless of #2). I think (and feel free to correct me if I'm wrong) that a better phrasing for #3 would be "how the universe should look if God exists" (instead of "...if #2 is correct"). Then, for theists, #2 would be "theist" and #1 would match #3; for atheists #2 would be "atheist" and #1 may or may not match #3.

Then my view is that those who start with creationist leanings (in #1 and #3, #2 being "theist") but pursue a scientific career find, in the course of their studies, that #1 (the observable features of the universe) are not as they had thought; then #1 and #3 no longer match. #3 is complex and difficult to change without feeling like it's being changed arbitrarily (and will probably need to be changed repeatedly as #1 changes with further study); but #2 is a switch, far easier to flick, and therefore far more commonly flicked.

comment by gjm · 2015-10-13T13:29:26.594Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

two different axes

I think we need to look back at why we're asking how many axes to use. The question was how to interpret the differences between two populations in the proportions of "special creation", "theistic evolution" and "naturalistic evolution" in their survey responses: we had something like 1:5:4 versus 4:5:1 and were trying to figure out whether what's happened is more that equivalent people in the two populations have made different choices between SC and NE, or that equivalent people in the two populations have made different choices between SC and TE, or TE and NE.

Let's stipulate that the difference between "no god" and "perfectly uninvolved god" is bigger than any difference between different theistic scenarios. Would that really do much to resolve our disagreement about how to explain the survey differences? I don't think so.

reduces your argument to a tautology

No, I don't think it does. It might if everyone always insisted on perfect consistency among their beliefs, but in practice most of us accept that we're wrong about some things (even though we don't know which things) and so when we find inconsistencies we don't immediately change our minds. So someone may believe, e.g., that Christianity is right, and that in the absence of compelling contrary evidence Christianity would lead to creationism, and that there is in fact such evidence and therefore one should accept evolution. And there's nothing terribly wrong with holding those views, though of course someone who does should make some effort to figure out where the mistake is.

For someone in that position, #1 and #3 don't match. The same might be true for an atheist who reads a pile of creationist literature arguing that a godless universe should look very different from ours and is not currently able to refute it (either because actually creationism is right, or because they just happen not to have the relevant information and arguments at their fingertips).

I don't think the god-switch (#2) is so easily flicked. My impression -- which of course may be wrong, and for which I don't have statistics or anything -- is that if you take a generally-thoughtful creationist and show them compelling evidence for evolution, the most common responses are (a) rejection of the evidence and/or associated arguments and (b) transition to some sort of theistic evolutionary view, with (c) leaping to atheism some way behind.

comment by CCC · 2015-10-14T09:43:19.107Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Let's stipulate that the difference between "no god" and "perfectly uninvolved god" is bigger than any difference between different theistic scenarios. Would that really do much to resolve our disagreement about how to explain the survey differences? I don't think so.

The size of the difference has absolutely nothing to do with my point. My point is that the difference is of an entirely different kind.

To take an analogy; let us say you have a duck, and you are measuring the greyness of its feathers. This runs along a spectrum from snowy white to ebony black. There is no point on this axis where the duck is actually a swan.

the way you've phrased #3 reduces your argument to a tautology

No, I don't think it does.

Both of your examples appear to me to show someone, having changed their ideas about #1, in the process of altering #2 or #3 to match. On consideration of this, I will admit that I was thinking only of the steady-state case (when someone's beliefs are internally consistent) and not really thinking about the transitional period during which they are not (even though some people might spend a majority of their lives in such a transitional state).

I don't think the god-switch (#2) is so easily flicked.

It's not so much that it's easily flicked as that it has less moving parts; flicking it requires adjusting one thing as opposed to many things. (Of course, changing either can be difficult - the default reaction would still be to reject any unwanted evidence and/or associated arguments).

...though I could be wrong about that.

comment by gjm · 2015-10-14T11:54:07.773Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

There is no point on this axis where the duck is actually a swan.

The point I'm making is that actually the discussion was about the colour of the feathers, and swan-ness as such is a mere distraction.

in the process of altering #2 or #3 to match

As you go on to remark, this process may never actually get as far as altering either #2 or #3 to match, and there's nothing terribly wrong with that (beyond the fact that we have unreliable information, finite brainpower, etc., all of which is simply part of the human condition). I suggest that most people's beliefs, most of the time, are not internally consistent. This is boringly true if we count it as inconsistent when someone thinks probably-P1, probably-P2, ..., probably-Pk, and P1,...,Pk can't all be true -- which doesn't have to indicate any suboptimality in belief-structure -- and less boring but surely still true if we only count it as inconsistent when someone's probability assignments (so far as they can be said to have such things) can't all be close to correct (e.g., thinking Pr(A)>=0.9, Pr(B)>=0.9, and Pr(A&B)<0.7).

comment by CCC · 2015-10-15T09:54:02.383Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

The point I'm making is that actually the discussion was about the colour of the feathers, and swan-ness as such is a mere distraction.

So, to reverse the analogy, are you saying that the spectrum is "God exists but doesn't touch evolution -> God exists and guides evolution -> God exists and created everything in the recent past", with the "God exists/doesn't exist" axis being a mere distraction?

I suggest that most people's beliefs, most of the time, are not internally consistent.

...this does make your viewpoint a good deal less tautological.

comment by gjm · 2015-10-15T13:45:07.069Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

with the "God exists/doesn't exist" axis being a mere distraction?

Yes, that's about it. (I guess "tough" was meant to be either "touch" or something like "work through".) It happens that most people who believe evolution operates without divine intervention or design believe that there are no gods to intervene or design in the first place, but there's no fundamental reason why a theist couldn't hold pretty much the exact same view of evolution as an atheist.

comment by CCC · 2015-10-16T10:27:37.572Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

"Tough" was supposed to be "touch", yes (and I've edited that correction into my previous post).

with the "God exists/doesn't exist" axis being a mere distraction?

Yes, that's about it.

This axis makes sense to me as a single axis, then.

there's no fundamental reason why a theist couldn't hold pretty much the exact same view of evolution as an atheist.

Not only is there no fundamental reason, but that's also pretty much the official position of the Vatican, who are about as theist as you get...

comment by gjm · 2015-10-16T10:43:40.755Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

The Vatican's official position is less than perfectly clear. Humani Generis in 1950 grudgingly accepted that Roman Catholics scientists could work on evolution, provided they didn't hold that evolution was definitely right and provided they accepted that souls are directly created by God. Then in 1996, addressing the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, JP2 accepted that evolution is "more than a hypothesis" (but do see the footnote about that phrase), but he by no means said that evolution proceeds without any divine involvement, and indeed it seems he rather conspicuously avoids saying anything that could be taken as endorsing that view.

comment by IlyaShpitser · 2015-10-16T16:36:19.865Z · score: 1 (5 votes) · LW · GW

grudgingly

Fnord.

was definitely right

Believing in probabilities of 1 is bad practice here, right?


Vatican's official position on evolution is likely empirically indistinguishable from what we can see with our own eyes (e.g. the scientific view). This has old precedent, see e.g. how transubstantation is handled in Christianity.

comment by gjm · 2015-10-16T17:34:48.399Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Fnord

If you think there's any real question about whether it was grudging, please actually read Humani Generis (it's not very long) and come back and tell me whether you still think so.

(If you mean something else, then I'm missing your point; consider explaining?)

Believing in probabilities of 1 is bad practice

Oh yes. But, again: please by all means go and read the encyclical and then tell me whether you really think Pius XII meant anything much like that. Tell me, in particular, whether you notice any reluctance to state that points of RC doctrine are definitely right. (Spoiler: it says in so many words, e.g., that some "religious and moral truths" delivered by revelation "may be known by all men readily with a firm certainty and with freedom from all error".)

comment by IlyaShpitser · 2015-10-16T17:41:57.277Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I think it's like trying to discern tone. Poe's law says this is hard in the context of sarcasm, but it seems hard in general from text. Seems doubly hard for people coming from a different background from you, the more different the more difficult the problem (xenoanthropology). People use language differently, people parse things differently (dog whistles, etc.)

What do we really know about how someone whose life trajectory resulted in the Papacy uses language?

But let's say you are even right. Why talk about tone at all? Are you trying to stick it to the Pope? What is the point of doing that? Why use emotionally non-neutral language?

comment by gjm · 2015-10-16T22:41:41.124Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Are you trying to stick it to the Pope?

Er, no. Why would I be trying to do that?

What do we really know about how someone whose life trajectory resulted in the Papacy uses language?

This seems like an awfully general argument against interpreting anyone's words. Encyclicals are intended to be widely read and understood. Is it really likely that some special papal quality makes them particularly difficult for others to interpret?

What is the point of doing that?

Because the question at issue is whether the official position (on evolution) of the Vatican is indistinguishable from the naturalistic evolution commonly held by unbelieving biologists; and the relevant documents are few and ambiguous and vague; and so attempting to extract whatever nuances one can from them seems worthwhile. Humani Generis is one of the key documents for understanding the RCC's view of evolution, and it seems to me reasonable to draw different conclusions from the document as it actually is than we would from a document that was more unequivocally accepting of biological evolution.

comment by IlyaShpitser · 2015-10-17T02:27:45.077Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

This seems like an awfully general argument against interpreting anyone's words.

Well, I am not saying we should not try to interpret what people say or write. But:

(a) This is hard to do for tone (Poe's law, principle of charity, etc.)

(b) Meaning is a binary relation between text and interpreter, and isn't always so simple (author is dead)

(c) Effective communication depends on shared cultural context and gets progressively harder as context gets less and less shared. In the limit, you get "communication is impossible" (a lot of Stanislav Lem stories are about this).


and the relevant documents are few and ambiguous and vague

Why not be charitable, then? From the CC point of view, there is no profit in making falsifiable claims, so they will probably retreat from making them. They don't want to look stupid, and at any rate, science isn't their business.

comment by gjm · 2015-10-17T10:56:45.323Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

In the limit, you get "communication is impossible"

Sure. But I don't see any reason to think we're near the limit in this case. Pius XII was pope and I'm not, true enough. But we're reasonably close in time (he was born a little less than 100 years before me), from reasonably similar cultures (both Western European), of at least overlapping religious backgrounds (my family was RC and I was a Christian although not an RC for something like 30 years) -- this all seems to me like the sort of situation in which interpretation should be less problematic than usual.

Why not be charitable, then?

I really don't see that I'm being uncharitable. If you insist that I am and ask why, I suppose the answer is that in cases of conflict I'd rather be accurate than charitable; I see the PoC as (inter alia) a tool for avoiding wrongness that comes from assuming people who disagree with you are evil or stupid. But I'm not (I promise) assuming that either Pius XII or John Paul II were evil or stupid, and my real answer to your question is that I don't see how I'm failing to be charitable.

there is no profit in making falsifiable claims

There is profit (if we must put it that way) in making correct claims, and if a pope thinks that theological considerations lead to a particular empirical claim then I don't expect him to refuse to state it on those grounds. (It seems to me that expecting otherwise is the less charitable position.) And there is profit (again, if we must put it that way) in making claims that sound confident and informative rather than vague.

But, as it happens, I am not (I think) claiming that the RCC's official documents make a falsifiable claim that is incompatible with naturalistic evolution. I am claiming that the position they state is deliberately less specific than naturalistic evolution; in particular, you will search in vain for any statement that evolution proceeds as if there were no god guiding it. Or that it probably does. Or, I think, even that it might do. And that the official documents give the impression (to me, at least) that their authors think it probably doesn't.

I repeat that none of that seems to me uncharitable. I am saying that the RCC has declined to make official statements that would likely be interpreted as endorsements of godlessness and as incompatible with their past positions, and that the RCC's position on aspects of evolution that are hard to get clear empirical evidence about is probably shaped by the religious doctrines that it endorses. All of which is as it should be, conditional on its being the sort of organization it is.

comment by entirelyuseless · 2015-10-17T13:55:23.546Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

The closest you can get to an "official" statement on that would be in the document of the International Theological Commission "Communion and Stewerdship". That is not technically considered a teaching document but it had to be approved by Ratzinger as head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, which at least means that he considered it acceptable.

Here is #69:

  1. The current scientific debate about the mechanisms at work in evolution requires theological comment insofar as it sometimes implies a misunderstanding of the nature of divine causality. Many neo-Darwinian scientists, as well as some of their critics, have concluded that, if evolution is a radically contingent materialistic process driven by natural selection and random genetic variation, then there can be no place in it for divine providential causality. A growing body of scientific critics of neo-Darwinism point to evidence of design (e.g., biological structures that exhibit specified complexity) that, in their view, cannot be explained in terms of a purely contingent process and that neo-Darwinians have ignored or misinterpreted. The nub of this currently lively disagreement involves scientific observation and generalization concerning whether the available data support inferences of design or chance, and cannot be settled by theology. But it is important to note that, according to the Catholic understanding of divine causality, true contingency in the created order is not incompatible with a purposeful divine providence. Divine causality and created causality radically differ in kind and not only in degree. Thus, even the outcome of a truly contingent natural process can nonetheless fall within God’s providential plan for creation. According to St. Thomas Aquinas: “The effect of divine providence is not only that things should happen somehow, but that they should happen either by necessity or by contingency. Therefore, whatsoever divine providence ordains to happen infallibly and of necessity happens infallibly and of necessity; and that happens from contingency, which the divine providence conceives to happen from contingency” (Summa theologiae, I, 22,4 ad 1). In the Catholic perspective, neo-Darwinians who adduce random genetic variation and natural selection as evidence that the process of evolution is absolutely unguided are straying beyond what can be demonstrated by science. Divine causality can be active in a process that is both contingent and guided. Any evolutionary mechanism that is contingent can only be contingent because God made it so. An unguided evolutionary process – one that falls outside the bounds of divine providence – simply cannot exist because “the causality of God, Who is the first agent, extends to all being, not only as to constituent principles of species, but also as to the individualizing principles....It necessarily follows that all things, inasmuch as they participate in existence, must likewise be subject to divine providence” (Summa theologiae I, 22, 2).

Notice what they are saying: "An unguided evolutionary process" cannot exist because nothing is unguided (according to the understanding of providence.) But this means that a falling rock is also not unguided, in that sense. So being "guided" in this sense is empirically indistinguishable from naturalistic evolution.

So they are recognizing pretty explicitly that the process of evolution might be indistinguishable from completely naturalistic evolution. And I suspect they are aware that it probably is, even if they didn't make this particular statement, probably because they wish that it weren't, and consequently don't object if people believe that it isn't.

comment by IlyaShpitser · 2015-10-17T14:43:18.402Z · score: -1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

You are failing to be charitable when you use fnords like "grudgingly." It's not emotionally neutral language, it conjures in the mind stupid old men blocking scientific progress for silly reasons, and getting Galileo in trouble, etc., being dragged forward, kicking and screaming by our side, the hero scientists.

The CC is not playing that game. They are not very interested in empirical falsifiabilty, and I think when you say:

There is profit (if we must put it that way) in making correct claims, and if a pope thinks that theological considerations lead to a particular empirical claim then I don't expect him to refuse to state it on those grounds. [...] And there is profit (again, if we must put it that way) in making claims that sound confident and informative rather than vague.

you are misreading their culture. The CC has long ago evolved away from their doctrine getting them in trouble with science. Science will always beat them in a debate about falsifiable claims, and losing will make them lose prestige. This is what I mean by "profit." The easiest thing for the CC to do is massage doctrine to make this not happen. This is precisely what had happened.

"Confident and informative" is language culture, and involves tone. How do we read confidence in text? What is informative in text? it's all based on allusions and references in the end. Would you find my papers informative? Probably not, because you don't share mathematical background with me. Do you share enough theological background with the Pope to peer review the Pope?

comment by gjm · 2015-10-17T15:40:44.519Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

You are failing to be charitable [...] It's not emotionally neutral language, it conjures in the mind stupid old men [...]

Have you noticed that you are doing to me exactly what you accuse me of doing to the Popes P12 and JP2?

I did not (so far as I can tell by introspection) write "grudgingly" in order to make people think of popes as stupid old men, or to summon up the spectre of the RCC blocking science for silly reasons, or to call Galileo to mind. I wrote it because CCC was saying that the RCC's official position on evolution is indistinguishable from that of naturalistic scientists, and I don't think it is, and the fact that the RCC's official documents talk about evolution as they do is one reason why I think so.

The easiest thing for the CC to do is massage doctrine to make this [sc. having doctrine found incompatible with findings of science] not happen.

I have to ask: Did you read what I wrote above, explaining that I am not claiming that the RCC's position on evolution makes empirical claims incompatible with the findings of science? Because you appear to me to be writing exactly as if I hadn't written that.

Would you find my papers informative? Probably not, because you don't share mathematical background with me.

I wonder on what basis you say that. (I work in industry as a mathematician; I have a PhD in pure mathematics from a top-rank university; reading mathematical papers that don't lie right within one's own areas of special expertise is hard work, but yes, I would expect to find your papers informative.)

Do you share enough theological background with the Pope to peer review the Pope?

I'm not attempting to peer review the Pope. But yes, I think I am sufficiently familiar with Christian thinking generally and RC thinking in particular to distinguish grudging from enthusiastic acceptance of an idea in a papal encyclical.


I am puzzled by what is happening in this thread. You are normally an outstandingly intelligent and sensible fellow, but here you have

  • adopted what seems to me an exceptionally combative approach
  • apparently failed to read what I wrote (not, I think, too obscurely)
  • accused me of a particular kind of uncharitable reading while simultaneously applying exactly that kind of uncharity to me
  • confidently stated things about me ("you don't share mathematical background") for which you have no good evidence, and which are in fact probably false

and I'm wondering what's going on to make you (as it seems to me) behave in so uncharacteristic a manner. May I ask you to consider carefully whether there is anything that might possibly be pushing you to be more adversarial than usual? (I'd ask: are you in fact Catholic? but am fairly sure the answer to that one is no.)

comment by IlyaShpitser · 2015-10-17T15:54:38.060Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I am not Catholic. I find LW attitudes about religion (and certain other things) kind of annoying, though, if you want to try to reverse engineer where I am coming from.


reading mathematical papers that don't lie right within one's own areas of special expertise is hard work

That's mostly what I meant, I am not trying to pull math rank (I don't think there is such a thing as math rank), merely that informativeness is a function of shared context. I am pretty happy to double down on "we don't share math background." I don't study much pure math, I doubt you study causal inference. I could study pure math, and you could study causal inference, but that's not the same thing.


I wrote it because CCC was saying that the RCC's official position on evolution is indistinguishable from that of naturalistic scientists, and I don't think it is

explaining that I am not claiming that the RCC's position on evolution makes empirical claims incompatible with the findings of science

Sorry, getting lost. You think RCC does make empirically distinguishable claims or not? If the former, we have a factual disagreement. If the latter, I still think it is uncharitable to inject tone reading.


while simultaneously applying exactly that kind of uncharity to me

I think it is bad practice to read tone. First of all, it's easy to be wrong, and second of all, it just increases room for misinterpretation of your own text.

Your word grudging conjured these things in my mind. Now you could say nothing could be further from the truth as far as your intentions were concerned. But that's the thing with texts and authors. How texts come across to others (independently of what the author wanted) matter, and this is why I think injecting tone reading is so dangerous, and why academic papers are generally written in an emotionally neutral tone (to avoid these types of issues).

I favor bilateral disarmament as far as tone in texts (this is probably utopian thinking on my part, as humans are all about status and social dominance when it comes to communication, and playing with tone is a big part of this, and further it is really hard to coordinate to not do that).

comment by gjm · 2015-10-17T17:13:41.910Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I am pretty happy to double down on "we don't share math background"

OK, fair enough. Maybe I have too optimistic a view of how deeply I need to understand something for it to be informative to me. Would you like to point me at one of your more interesting papers so we can try the experiment? :-)

Sorry, getting lost.

I think

  • the RCC surely does sometimes make empirically distinguishable claims, but
  • I am not claiming in this discussion that it does; rather
  • I am saying that its position on evolution differs from that of someone who accepts a naturalistic account of evolution, because
  • such a person would endorse propositions that the RCC conspicuously avoids endorsing
  • such as "evolution proceeds in a manner that shows no sign of divine intervention or guidance".

I think it is bad practice to read tone. [...] Your word grudging conjured these things in my mind.

Yeah, but you demonstrably weren't only talking about your mind; otherwise you wouldn't have said 'You are failing to be charitable when you use fnord words like "grudgingly"'. (And, y'know, you could have said "it conjures in my mind ..." rather than "it conjures in the mind", if you were really only intending to say what effect those words have on you. But you weren't, really, were you?)

I favor bilateral disarmament as far as tone in texts

Pardon me if I am being dim, but are you now saying that you engaged in uncharitable misreading of the tone of my writing in retaliation for my allegedly doing likewise to two popes? If not, what exactly is your point about "bilateral disarmament"? (It can't be that you did it to me because I did it to you first, because I'm pretty sure I made no comment on your tone until the grandparent of this comment, which came after your accusations against me.)

comment by IlyaShpitser · 2015-10-18T16:07:59.497Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

you demonstrably weren't only talking about your mind

If I was speaking for someone else, I would be vulnerable to the charge of speaking for others. I am not that cognitively weird though: if this happened with me and your text, I am sure it will happen with people similar to me and texts similar to yours.

OK, fair enough.

My CV is online. I will mention some more things that should be done soon. But also: I would hate for you to read my stuff to prove a point, read if you are interested!

such a person would endorse propositions that the RCC conspicuously avoids endorsing

But that stuff is argument about taste. RCC's insistence on "divine guidance" does not, as locals like to say, "pay rent in anticipated experience." So they can say whatever they want, it boils down to their taste about how they phrase things, not an alternative empirically testable theory. People who get angry about theism (e.g. the flying spaghetti monster sneer club) will argue with them or mock them, but they are kind of wasting their time -- there is no empirical content to the argument. So it's just a bit of culture war playing out.

accusations

This entire rabbit hole would have been avoided if you didn't try to reverse engineer whether the Pope was grudging or not, and just stuck to factual reading. The point is, maybe sticking to factual reading of texts avoids a lot of time-wasting traps.

comment by gjm · 2015-10-18T18:49:04.268Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I promise that I have no intention of reading your papers just to prove a point. That would be silly. I think it's eminently possible that some of them might be interesting to me.

(I just looked you up in Google Scholar and grabbed the first paper it found, which I suspect is a little tangential to your main research; it was about parsing citations of scientific papers using a generative model of (part of) the citation process, allowing for errors in names etc. I think it was informative to me, though of course I may be overestimating how well I understood it. (In particular, one key element seems to be a trick you use to make your Metropolis-Hastings sampling actually generate a reasonable number of usable candidates, which is borrowed from another paper I didn't look at and where I accordingly got only a very hazy idea of what it's doing.)

But that stuff is argument about taste.

I don't think that's quite right. The RCC's position is carefully "unempirical" in the sense that it doesn't make any definite predictions, and that suffices to keep it from getting too badly embarrassed by future scientific discoveries. But it seems to me that, e.g., the position Pius XII laid out in Humani Generis involves somewhat different probability assignments from the position that would have been adopted by naturalist biologists at the time, and that if you had asked faithful readers of H.G. and naturalistic biologists questions like "How likely is it that in the next 50 years or so scientific investigation will find something plainly inconsistent with a purely naturalistic view of evolution?" you would have got different answers.

In support of this view, here's a little extract from Humani Generis:

Some however, rashly transgress this liberty of discussion, when they act as if the origin of the human body from pre-existing and living matter were already completely certain and proved by the facts which have been discovered up to now and by reasoning on those facts, and as if there were nothing in the sources of divine revelation which demands the greatest moderation and caution in this question.

I'm not concerned right now to argue that this is wrong (especially as it's not the latest official statement of the RCC on evolution); only that Pius XII clearly thought that divine revelation ought to shift faithful Catholics' assessment of the probability of purely naturalistic evolution -- even as regards only "the human body".

Do I need to repeat that I'm claiming not that the RCC has an alternative empirically testable theory? Only that its position on evolution differs from that of a naturalistic evolutionist, by (in LWese) assigning more probability to hypotheses incompatible with naturalism.

This entire rabbit hole would have been avoided [...]

Maybe so. It would also have been avoided if you hadn't taken such exception at such length to my use of the word "grudging". These facts do nothing to indicate whether the better diagnosis is "attempting to go beyond literal meanings leads down rabbit-holes" or "complaining over-vigorously about going beyond literal meanings leads down rabbit-holes".

(Just out of curiosity, is it you or someone else who's been downvoting everything I say in this subthread?)

comment by IlyaShpitser · 2015-10-19T16:24:37.832Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

(Just out of curiosity, is it you or someone else who's been downvoting everything I say in this subthread?)

Not me. Would be pretty rude of me.

You can ignore that citation matching paper, I was an undergrad back then. I don't work on that kind of stuff anymore. If you email me, I will send you some stuff that's paywalled.

comment by gjm · 2015-10-19T16:58:00.820Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Not me.

That was my guess, FWIW. (I don't think it's necessarily rude to downvote someone you're also arguing with, if you think their arguments are really bad. But I can't recall the last time I did it, if I ever did.)

I was an undergrad back then

Yeah, I thought the paper seemed a little far removed from the sort of thing I thought you did now (and rather tame). I'll drop you an email. If you don't get one within the next day or so, feel free to remind me; I'm very good at forgetting to do things.

comment by hairyfigment · 2015-10-16T17:18:38.810Z · score: -1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Your charitable interpretation is false on all counts, at least until the Vatican gets around to making a new statement on the nature of "Adam".

However, this must be done in such a way that the reasons for both opinions, that is, those favorable and those unfavorable to evolution, be weighed and judged with the necessary seriousness, moderation and measure, and provided that all are prepared to submit to the judgment of the Church, to whom Christ has given the mission of interpreting authentically the Sacred Scriptures and of defending the dogmas of faith.[11] Some however, rashly transgress this liberty of discussion, when they act as if the origin of the human body from pre-existing and living matter were already completely certain and proved by the facts which have been discovered up to now and by reasoning on those facts, and as if there were nothing in the sources of divine revelation which demands the greatest moderation and caution in this question.

When, however, there is question of another conjectural opinion, namely polygenism, the children of the Church by no means enjoy such liberty. For the faithful cannot embrace that opinion which maintains that either after Adam there existed on this earth true men who did not take their origin through natural generation from him as from the first parent of all, or that Adam represents a certain number of first parents. Now it is in no way apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled with that which the sources of revealed truth and the documents of the Teaching Authority of the Church propose with regard to original sin, which proceeds from a sin actually committed by an individual Adam and which, through generation, is passed on to all and is in everyone as his own.

comment by IlyaShpitser · 2015-10-16T17:23:38.381Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Where is the quote from?

comment by hairyfigment · 2015-10-16T17:26:03.130Z · score: -2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Really?

It comes from the link in the great=grandparent, to the text of Humani Generis.

comment by entirelyuseless · 2015-10-16T17:29:48.079Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

The Catholic Church does not work the way you seem to think it does. They have made perfectly clear that polygenism is now acceptable, even without making a "new statement" in the way you that you suggest. And even Pius XII was deliberately suggesting the same thing in that very statement, by saying "it is in no way apparent" that a reconciliation is possible, rather than saying that one is not possible.

comment by gjm · 2015-10-19T15:23:45.632Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Could you say more about how the RCC has "made perfectly clear that polygenism is now acceptable"? E.g., is there something in the "Communion and Stewardship" document you've quoted from a couple of times? I had a quick look and didn't find anything of the sort, but I could well have missed it.

(I briefly thought "that must be a typo for not acceptable", but I'm pretty sure you did actually mean what you wrote.)

comment by entirelyuseless · 2015-10-19T17:08:15.314Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Yes, I meant what I wrote. I mostly agree with what you said about Pius XII and what he was and was not cautious about. However, I am pretty sure that he deliberately left room for polygenism to be accepted in the future by saying that it wasn't clear how a reconciliation would be possible, rather than by saying that a reconciliation simply was not possible. He was pretty careful in that statement, even deliberately leaving room for aliens (by adding the clause "on this earth," because if "man" is understood as "rational animal," the existence of aliens would be the existence of other men.)

People saw this even at the time and started to speculate about how "reconcilations" would be possible. While still not accepting an opinion that polygenism is definitely true, Paul VI made clear that Catholics are permitted to think that way:

"In the attempt to rethink the Theology of original sin in the light of the scientific theory of evolution and polygenism, scholars have sought to determine the literary genre of the first chapters of Genesis, and in particular Gen. 1-3. And usually, following closely the documents of the Magisterium, they affirm that it is a theological aetiology, that is, a particular vision of history, a picturesque story which is largely symbolic, of an event which really happened (original sin). Consequently, they think that the bible is not concerned with the scientific question of evolution or polygenism and these are, therefore, not denied by Revelation."

"Working on these premises, various hypotheses have been proposed to reconcile Revelation with science within the framework of a more modern theology of original sin. They are still only hypotheses, plausible to a greater or lesser extent, while the scientific theories are by no means certain and are in need of further completion and proof. The Magisterium of the Church in her latest documents has given clarifications of a specifically theological nature, while allowing those who are properly qualified to continue their studies."

Link. This may be a bit "grudging," as you described it, but it certainly does not forbid Catholics from thinking that polygenism is likely, and this was already in 1968.

This is from number 70 of Communion and Stewardship:

"With respect to the immediate creation of the human soul, Catholic theology affirms that particular actions of God bring about effects that transcend the capacity of created causes acting according to their natures. The appeal to divine causality to account for genuinely causal as distinct from merely explanatory gaps does not insert divine agency to fill in the “gaps” in human scientific understanding (thus giving rise to the so-called "God of the gaps”). The structures of the world can be seen as open to non-disruptive divine action in directly causing events in the world. Catholic theology affirms that that the emergence of the first members of the human species (whether as individuals or in populations) represents an event that is not susceptible of a purely natural explanation and which can appropriately be attributed to divine intervention."

(The idea here is that if human beings have a spiritual and immortal soul which other animals do not, the creation of that soul requires God's work; they are not saying that the physical development of humanity requires some special intervention.) In any case, "whether as individuals or in populations" basically refers to monogenism and polygenism, and the implication is that theology does not determine anything about this.

Lastly, obviously many Catholics think that polygenism is true and have said so in public works, and there has been no rebuke of this position at any time after Paul VI (as far as I know.)

comment by IlyaShpitser · 2015-10-16T17:34:30.019Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I think the only real hard line the CC takes is on certain matters of faith when they invoke infallibility (and they only did that a handful of times on empirically unverifiable matters only).

edit: I suppose actually the hard line includes some other things that form the core of the faith but needed no clarification via infallibility pronouncements, e.g. Nicene Creed. The CC will not give ground there either.

comment by hairyfigment · 2015-10-16T17:44:51.697Z · score: -2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

A common falsehood.

comment by IlyaShpitser · 2015-10-16T17:53:39.190Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Excommunication is a social punishment, a ritualized shunning, not a hill they are willing to die on. The CC is not in the business of making falsifiable claims. This policy was worked out long, long ago.


You seem pretty angry.

comment by CCC · 2015-10-19T09:29:34.098Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I think a lot of that is the Vatican being really really cautious. They're ultra-cautious about just about everything they say (largely, I think, because they are well aware that (a) a lot of people will take what they say as gospel truth and (b) they don't get to take anything back, or hardly ever, so if they endorse evolution in some form and then a few decades later a scientist comes back and presents some improvement on the theory that contradicts that form then they will look silly).

So, yeah. What I'm reading into that is that they're not saying it's definitely true (in the same way as they do say it's definitely true that God exists) but they are saying it looks like it just might be.

comment by gjm · 2015-10-19T10:43:26.923Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

As well as being ultra-cautious about evolution, Humani Generis says these things (emphasis mine):

divine revelation must be considered morally necessary so that those religious and moral truths which are not of their nature beyond the reach of reason in the present condition of the human race, may be known by all men readily with a firm certainty and with freedom from all error.

the many wonderful external signs God has given, which are sufficient to prove with certitude by the natural light of reason alone the divine origin of the Christian religion

(as well as many other things that don't appear to me at all ultra-cautious, but where the language is less clear-cut). So this isn't the result of any general policy of ultra-caution. They are being extra-ultra-cautious about evolution specifically. That was in 1950, and they are less cautious now, but still very cautious. This is why I say their position is notably different from that of naturalistic evolutionary biologists.

... Oh, wait. Have I misunderstood you? If so, we may be arguing at cross-purposes. Here's our exchange from upthread:

there's no fundamental reason why a theist couldn't hold pretty much the exact same view of evolution as an atheist.

Not only is there no fundamental reason, but that's also pretty much the official position of the Vatican, who are about as theist as you get...

When you said "that", did you mean (1) "the exact same view of evolution as an atheist" or (2) "the idea that there's no fundamental reason why a theist couldn't, etc."? I've been assuming #1 but maybe you meant #2, in which case our disagreement is less sharp than I thought. On #2, my impression is that the Vatican hasn't said or implied much about what theists as such can reasonably believe about evolution; they're concerned, rather, with what faithful Catholics can reasonably believe about evolution; and what they've said about the latter is, inter alia, that faithful Catholics mustn't regard it as definitely right (a position that I don't think is negated by JP2's statement before the Pontifical Academy of Sciences), and from the things they are willing to call definitely right I don't think it's tenable to take this as meaning only that one shouldn't literally take Pr(evolution)=1. So I don't think the Vatican thinks it acceptable for Catholics to think about evolution in the same way as most atheists do. Again, what they think about theists more broadly is hard to tell.

comment by entirelyuseless · 2015-10-19T15:00:42.574Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

From the same document (of the International Theological Commission) that I quoted earlier:

"Since it has been demonstrated that all living organisms on earth are genetically related, it is virtually certain that all living organisms have descended from this first organism." Given Ratzinger's approval of that document I don't think you can reasonably say that a Catholic who thinks that evolution is definitely right (in the ordinary sense of thinking that something is definitely right) is not a faithful Catholic.

comment by gjm · 2015-10-19T15:19:28.058Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Well ... the very next sentence of that document is this:

Converging evidence from many studies in the physical and biological sciences furnishes mounting support for some theory of evolution to account for the development and diversification of life on earth, while controversy continues over the pace and mechanisms of evolution.

and while that's pretty positive about evolution it seems not to be saying that evolution is definitely right. I think what's going on here is that the authors of that document are happy being very confident about common descent but not so happy being equally confident about evolution.

As to just what sort of evolution, here's an extract from further on in that document:

It follows that the message of Pope John Paul II cannot be read as a blanket approbation of all theories of evolution, including those of a neo-Darwinian provenance which explicitly deny to divine providence any truly causal role in the development of life in the universe.

As the section of that document that you quoted before makes clear, giving God a "truly causal role" doesn't necessarily mean endorsing divine intervention. Section 68 -- the one before the one you quoted before -- suggests what alternatives the authors had in mind, most notably the idea that he designed the universe in such a way that its natural operation would produce particular results.

This, again, is quite far from any view of evolution that would be endorsed by naturalists.

comment by entirelyuseless · 2015-10-19T17:22:34.291Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Even in section 68, I don't see them saying that God necessarily "designed the universe in such a way that its natural operation would produce particular results," in any sense stronger than the one which would be absolutely necessary for someone who believes that God is omnipotent and omniscient and the cause of everything that happens. In other words, given that you believe such things about God, then if you see a rock fall and land on the ground, you must believe that God wanted it on the ground. But that wouldn't necessarily imply that it would have bothered God if it landed in the water instead.

Obviously naturalists would not accept God's design even in this sense. But it is not a scientific theory one way or another and makes no differences in what you expect to find in nature. So that would still allow for someone to say that naturalistic evolution is definitely true with respect to every prediction that it makes.

Also, I agree that in practice, at least in other places, there is the implication that the world was designed (at least by initial conditions) for the sake of some results rather than others. This comes up especially in regard to marriage and sexuality. However, I don't see that proposed in any dogmatic way, and it seems to be wishful thinking: if it is objectively by chance that reproduction works the specific way it does, then it becomes harder or impossible to justify Catholic sexual morality. For example, if human beings had developed by evolution in such a way that sexual reproduction required one partner killing the other, it would be obviously justified for them to make technological changes in the way they reproduce.

comment by gjm · 2015-10-19T22:07:22.684Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

[...] in any sense stronger than the one which would be absolutely necessary [...]

I'm not sure what sense you have in mind. It seems to me that taking seriously the idea that God is omniscient and the cause of everything that happens more or less commits one to seeing everything as designed by God to achieve whatever his purposes might be.

It is fairly common to say: no, despite having that power God conferred free will upon some of his creatures, so that what they do is not chosen by him. I'm not sure that actually makes sense when looked at clearly, but in any case it seems hard to apply this idea to the laws of nature.

In any case, the document we're discussing seems to me to be saying that God may guide natural processes like evolution by being a "cause of causes", and setting up the web of natural causation so as to achieve his ends.

(I don't mean to imply that it's saying he did so in such a way as to predetermine everything that happens, by the way; one can imagine God setting up a world that operates at random, and optimizing for a particular probability distribution or something of the kind.)

comment by entirelyuseless · 2015-10-19T22:26:10.578Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I'm not sure if we're disagreeing about anything. I'm not saying that any Church authority has said that "the process of evolution looks exactly like a naturalistic process", but that what they do say is consistent with this being true. Even assuming God had some motive for setting up things the way they are, how would that imply something in the process of evolution that doesn't look naturalistic?

I certainly agree that if you say God is relevant at all, that is not something that naturalism would say. But it also doesn't seem to mean anything concrete about the process.

comment by gjm · 2015-10-19T23:01:31.199Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I'm not sure if we're disagreeing about anything.

Neither am I. I think that

  • in so far as the RCC has a position on the actual facts of biological evolution (as opposed to a position on what the Catholic faithful are supposed to think about them):
    • it seems to me fairly clearly distinguishable from any position a typical atheist evolutionist would adopt, even as regards observable questions like how likely it is that clear evidence of non-natural processes in evolution will ever turn up, though it's hard to be certain because the official documents carefully avoid being too definite on such matters, and
    • I bet the senior RC clergy responsible for these documents hold positions more clearly distinguishable from those of typical atheist evolutionists, even as regards etc.; but
    • I suspect many of them have at least a suspicion that the scientific evidence for naturalist-looking evolution is only ever going to get better, and that clear signs of any kind of divine design in natural organisms are never going to show up.
  • as regards the RCC's position on what the Catholic faithful are supposed to think:
    • I don't think they are forbidden to adopt positions that, as regards etc., are indistinguishable from those of a typical atheist evolutionist, but
    • those official documents seem intended to discourage them from holding such positions, and
    • such positions seem permitted only (I insist on saying!) grudgingly. In particular:
      • until recently the Catholic faithful were explicitly forbidden to adopt such positions (on account of, e.g., what Humani Generis says about not regarding evolution as definitely correct), and
      • I strongly suspect that if even a modest amount of credible scientific evidence pointing in the direction of "intelligent design" were to show up, the RCC would return to that sort of stance.

(Not all of those things are directly related to the questions we were discussing.) Does that help?

comment by entirelyuseless · 2015-10-20T04:43:20.881Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Ok. I think I agree at least mostly with this summary, although I might qualify a few points.

In itself it's likely that someone who believes in God will estimate a higher probability of evidence of non-natural processes in evolution than for an atheist. But there is also the third point you mention, namely that even theists may notice that there is currently no such evidence and may suspect that there never will be any. So this might mitigate the difference in their expectations somewhat.

Regarding what is grudgingly permitted or what is encouraged, I think this is less about probability assignments about the facts at issue, and more about the probability that a belief will tend to keep people in the Church or to lead to them leaving the Church. I think this is true even when the Church authorities are explicitly aware that a belief is probably false, at least in some cases. They still will not discourage that belief if it makes it more likely for someone to stay in the Church, unless there is some other motive for discouraging it (e.g. if the belief is very obviously ridiculous, they may discourage it because it could make the Church look bad.)

comment by CCC · 2015-10-20T09:31:27.393Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

As well as being ultra-cautious about evolution, Humani Generis says these things (emphasis mine):

Yes; there are some things that the Vatican is extremely certain of (e.g. the divine origin of the Christian religion). Their ultra-caution extends to everything else - a rather large category which just so happens to include evolution.

That was in 1950, and they are less cautious now,

I don't think they're less cautious, I just think they recognise that there's more evidence. At the very least, the fact that no-ones convincingly refuted it in the last sixty-odd years despite all the attention being paid to it counts for quite a bit.

When you said "that", did you mean (1) "the exact same view of evolution as an atheist" or (2) "the idea that there's no fundamental reason why a theist couldn't, etc."?

I meant that there's no reason why a theist can't hold a view of evolution that makes exactly the same predictions in all circumstances as an atheist does. Naturally, the theist's view will incorporate God as having (at the very least) set up the natural laws that permit it, while the atheist will presumably have those laws simply existing with no particular cause; but they can both agree on what those laws are.

what they've said about the latter is, inter alia, that faithful Catholics mustn't regard it as definitely right

I understand that as meaning that faithful catholics shouldn't take Pr(evolution)=1.

and from the things they are willing to call definitely right I don't think it's tenable to take this as meaning only that one shouldn't literally take Pr(evolution)=1

The thing is, the things that they are willing to consider as definitely right are things like the divine origin of Christianity; and as far as I understand it, they do expect faithful catholics to take Pr(Christianity has a divine origin)=1.

comment by gjm · 2015-10-20T11:19:37.724Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I meant

Unfortunately, I think what you're clarifying isn't what I was asking about :-). Let P be the proposition "as far as scientifically observable consequences go, evolution behaves as if it's entirely natural and undesigned". You and I agree that a theist can consistently believe P; call this thing that we believe Q. (Perhaps you also believe P, as I do, but that's a separate question.) You made a remark about the RCC (which has spawned a discussion entirely out of proportion to the importance of that remark in anyone's arguments, but no matter!) which I interpreted as saying that the RCC's official position is P, whereas in fact perhaps you were saying that the RCC's official position is Q (or perhaps the closely related Q', which says that a good Catholic can consistently believe P).

So my question was: were you saying that the RCC's position is (something like) P, or that the RCC's position is (something like) Q?

Pr(...) = 1

I agree that HG can be read as saying faithful Catholics mustn't take Pr(evolution)=1 but must take Pr(souls)=1 (where both "evolution" and "souls" are brief abbreviations for more complicated things, of course). I suppose what I was getting at is that saying "don't take Pr(X)=1" effectively means quite different things depending on whether the community you're addressing is in the habit of taking Pr(various things)=1 or scrupulously avoids it as e.g. LW tends to for good reason; and the fact that HG firmly endorses taking some probabilities to be 1 indicates that it's in the former camp, which to me suggests that HG is saying not what an LWer would express by "don't take Pr(evolution)=1" but something more like "don't treat evolution as definitely true in the same sort of way as you treat other ordinary things as definitely true".

But it's possible, as you say, that actually the position being sketched in HG would be, if written out with more care, something more like this: there are essential dogmas of RC faith, for which one must assign p=1; there are ordinary statements of fact, like (ha!) "the earth orbits the sun", for which one would be ill-advised to assign p=1 but the RCC doesn't take any particular position on that question; but for evolution the RCC specifically says not to take p=1 but leaves open the possibility of taking p=1-10^-20 or something.

I suspect these are questions that have no answers, in the following sense: senior RC clergy don't generally think in terms that correspond so directly to the very quantitative probabilistic approach commonly taken here as to enable a clear distinction between p=1 and p=1-10^-20, etc., and any "translation" that makes them out to have been making statements in those quantitative probabilistic terms is liable to misrepresent their meaning. (E.g., p=1, as such, means that absolutely no possible evidence would change your mind, but I think Pius XII could probably have imagined possible happenings that would have convinced him that God doesn't after all directly attach souls to human bodies.)

comment by CCC · 2015-10-21T09:03:22.081Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

So my question was: were you saying that the RCC's position is (something like) P, or that the RCC's position is (something like) Q?

Something almost exactly like Q'.

But it's possible, as you say, that actually the position being sketched in HG would be, if written out with more care, something more like this: there are essential dogmas of RC faith, for which one must assign p=1; there are ordinary statements of fact, like (ha!) "the earth orbits the sun", for which one would be ill-advised to assign p=1 but the RCC doesn't take any particular position on that question; but for evolution the RCC specifically says not to take p=1 but leaves open the possibility of taking p=1-10^-20 or something.

I get the impression they were hinting at something more like Pr(evolution)=0.9, which is a figure entirely unsupported by anything in the text and involves me taking a guess, but apart from that this is pretty much exactly how I read it, yes. (With the note that the only reason the RCC is specifically calling out evolution is because there's been such a brouhaha over it from the protestant churches that staying silent on the matter would have been bad politics).

senior RC clergy don't generally think in terms that correspond so directly to the very quantitative probabilistic approach commonly taken here as to enable a clear distinction between p=1 and p=1-10^-20, etc.

While there may very well be senior clergy who do think in such terms (I wouldn't know, I've never met any seriously senior clergy) this is largely why I think that something like p=0.9 is probably closer to the intended reading. (Or p=0.95, or even p=0.99)

(E.g., p=1, as such, means that absolutely no possible evidence would change your mind, but I think Pius XII could probably have imagined possible happenings that would have convinced him that God doesn't after all directly attach souls to human bodies.)

Even if so, I'm pretty sure that it wouldn't be the official Vatican position that that probability can ever be anything less than one. (Politics, again; if the Pope ever admits to that p being less than one and someone runs a headline based on it...)

And if he does see such evidence, he has to consider the possibility that he is hallucinating, or being intentionally tricked by someone; if p is high enough, then it may very well be the case that any sufficiently convincing evidence will merely convince him to report to the nearest psychologist with complaints of extraordinarily detailed and persistent hallucinations.

comment by gjm · 2015-10-21T11:02:47.582Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Something almost exactly like Q'.

OK; then many of my earlier comments in this thread (which were essentially arguing that the RCC's position is very different from P) have been entirely not-to-the-point and have wasted everyone's time. I repent in dust and ashes.

p=0.9

Yeah, this is roughly my reading too. (Maybe more like p=0.7 or something back in 1950 with Humani Generis.)

it wouldn't be the official Vatican position that that probability can ever be anything less than one.

So much the worse for the Vatican, then. (But I think you're probably right.)

comment by CCC · 2015-10-22T08:06:58.618Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Yeah, this is roughly my reading too. (Maybe more like p=0.7 or something back in 1950 with Humani Generis.)

Something in that general order of magnitude is probably more-or-less right.

...I think we've pretty much come to agreement on these points, then.

comment by entirelyuseless · 2015-10-21T13:34:55.587Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

The Church has no official statements about probability one way or another. There are certainly Catholics who think that the probability of their beliefs is one (which is insane), but typically they do not hold this by saying that no possible evidence would convince them. They say, "such and such would convince me that Catholicism is false, but such and such is absolutely impossible, and I am absolutely certain that it is absolutely impossible."

On the other hand there are many far more reasonable Catholics who admit that their probability is less than one, admit that there is evidence that would convince them their beliefs are false, and admit that they might later observe the evidence. The Church has never said anything against such opinions (or against the first kind of opinion).

One person I know, whom pretty much everyone considers to be a devout and orthodox Catholic, told me that he would be happy with a probability of 30% (that is, he would be happy to believe with that probability, based on Pascal's wager type reasoning). I suspect that in practice his personal probability is around 50%.

comment by gjm · 2015-10-21T15:33:25.491Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

The discussion about probabilities was all concerning the following specific question: How should we interpret the language in, e.g., Humani Generis about how faithful Catholics are required not to hold that some things are definitely true but the RCC teaches that some other things are definitely true? For sure, no translation into LW-style probabilityese is going to reproduce the meaning exactly, but one might reasonably hope to approximate what the RC documents say in terms that make some kind of sense to rationalists.

comment by entirelyuseless · 2015-10-21T16:01:15.481Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I think you need to understand that in terms of doxastic voluntarism. The Church holds that faith is voluntary, so that people can reasonably be praised or blamed for what they believe. They may not say it explicitly about other kinds of belief, but if they are right about religious beliefs, it would probably also be true that accepting or rejecting the theory of evolution (and any other similar thing) is also voluntary.

Given that account of belief, saying "you are obliged to say that this is definitely true and that this other thing is at least not definitely true," is a statement about the choices you should make. You should choose to say (according to Pius XII), "Christianity comes from God," and "Christianity definitely comes from God," but not (according to Pius XII), "The theory of evolution applied to human beings is definitely true."

Because it's a question of choices, probability is not really relevant one way or another (except in the sense that the probability that something is true might be one reason that should affect whether or not you say something). That is why I gave the example of someone who estimates the chance of his beliefs being right, based on the evidence, to be about 50%. But despite that he chooses to say "this is simply true," probably based on various moral considerations. Kind of like you might want to believe your brother about something rather than saying he is lying, not because of strong evidence for that, but because it's hurtful to say "you're lying."

If this account is correct, the reason you can't translate statements like that into statements resembling claims about probability is because that is simply not what they are about.

Rationalists say many things which have similar moral implications, and which don't ultimately make a lot of sense apart from a similar doxastic voluntarism (e.g. "you ought to update on evidence," which implies that you can and should choose to do so), but most people don't accept an account like this explicitly. If you don't accept doxastic voluntarism, you should simply say that the Catholic Church's statements about such things are presuming an incorrect theory of belief, and just don't make any sense apart from that theory.

(I agree with doxastic voluntarism, so such statements do make sense to me, whatever I happen to think about them on an object level.)

comment by gjm · 2015-10-21T16:43:42.997Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Rationalists say many things which have similar moral implications [...] e.g. "you ought to update on evidence"

When I say "you ought to update on evidence" I'm fairly sure I am neither endorsing doxastic voluntarism nor making a claim about the morality of updating (or not) on evidence. Rather, I mean that if you update appropriately on evidence then your beliefs will, over time, tend to grow more accurate compared with the beliefs you would hold if you didn't update appropriately on evidence, and that this is likely to benefit whatever goals you may have. (I might add that it benefits other people for your beliefs to be accurate, so there is some moral import to whether you update on evidence, but that's not what I would mean by "ought".) Is it a pointless thing to say if we don't get to choose what we believe? Not if we have more choice about what overall strategy to use when adjusting our beliefs than we have about individual beliefs, which I think may well be the case.

(As to the actual question of doxastic voluntarism, I think it's clear that it comes in degrees and that the truth isn't right at either extreme. I don't believe either of us could, right now, decide to believe that grass is pink and forthwith start doing so; but I'm pretty sure either of us could incline ourselves more toward believing (say) that Charles Dickens was born in 1834 simply by repeating "Charles Dickens was born in 1834" in a confident tone of voice fifty times. Choose another example if you happen already to have a confident opinion about whether Dickens was born in 1834.)

comment by entirelyuseless · 2015-10-21T17:28:48.064Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I am fairly sure that many rationalists do in fact make claims about updating on evidence with moral implications, even if you do not intend those implications yourself. But in any case, even your response implies a certain degree of voluntariness, if it is possible to adopt an overall strategy of adjusting our beliefs; if it were totally involuntary, we could not affect the strategy (and in fact you agree in the second part that it is not totally involuntary.)

I agree that in the way people ordinarily mean it, I could not start to believe that grass is pink. But I also could not go and kill myself right now. That doesn't make not killing myself involuntary, since the reason is that I think it would be bad to kill myself. The case of the grass might be different, and it might be impossible to start to believe that in a stronger sense. In other discussion of this issue someone compared it to holding your hand in a fire until it is burned off; that might well be a physical impossibility, not just a question of thinking that it is bad.

But even in the case of holding your hand in a fire, I would see that as a certain kind of desire (to pull your hand away), even if it is one that we cannot resist with our conscious desires, and the case of belief seems pretty similar. This might just be a question of how much you are willing to strain an analogy.

It's not as if "belief" is a name for one objective thing in the world which is either there or not. There are a whole bunch of things, words, actions, thoughts, and feelings, and we call various patterns of these things a "belief." Some of these things are voluntary and some are not. Simply for consistency I choose to call the voluntary parts of that pattern "belief" and exclude the other parts, at least when there is competition between them. According to this way of speaking, I could choose to believe that Dickens was born in 1834, even right now, if I had a motive to do so. But that would not affect the involuntary parts of my assessment, and you might prefer to call it something else (e.g. "belief in belief").

comment by hairyfigment · 2015-10-14T18:59:23.190Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

It's not so much that it's easily flicked as that it has less moving parts; flicking it requires adjusting one thing as opposed to many things.

Your initial puzzling definition of what you believed had two parts ("omnipotent and omniscient"). You quickly added that you attributed many other traits to God, but were less certain of them (!) and thus presumably could change them more easily.

Are you saying that the whole set of claims has a common cause and they are therefore likely to go together?

comment by CCC · 2015-10-15T09:56:24.884Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Your initial puzzling definition of what you believed had two parts ("omnipotent and omniscient"). You quickly added that you attributed many other traits to God, but were less certain of them (!) and thus presumably could change them more easily.

Yes, that is correct.

Are you saying that the whole set of claims has a common cause and they are therefore likely to go together?

No. In the grandparent post here, I'm talking about (what I understand is) the average person's idea of God. I recognise that my conception is not average, and some debate with other people has convinced me that a lot of people have far more complicated ideas of what God is, with far more moving parts.

comment by VoiceOfRa · 2015-10-12T20:33:40.602Z · score: -6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

If anyone has a clue why this was downvoted,

Look at the first paragraph of your post. Using "humor" to cover bad arguments.

It seems so obviously innocuous that I suspect it's VoiceOfRa doing his thing again

Yes, I tend to apply a higher standard to comments then just about everybody else.

comment by gjm · 2015-10-13T00:28:14.652Z · score: 6 (8 votes) · LW · GW

OK, I looked at the first paragraph. I see the (attempt at) humour. I don't see how it's covering (or trying to cover) a bad argument, or indeed any argument at all. What bad argument do you think I was attempting to cover?

a higher standard

I don't think "higher" is the right word here. That impression you have that no one else appreciates how awful your political opponents' arguments are? That's what being mindkilled feels like from the inside.

comment by TheAncientGeek · 2015-10-13T12:07:26.157Z · score: 4 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Yes, I tend to apply a higher standard to comments then just about everybody else.

Including your own? I beg to differ.

comment by VoiceOfRa · 2015-10-13T22:26:29.388Z · score: -4 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Citation please.

comment by TheAncientGeek · 2015-10-14T09:44:03.719Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

For instance here, where you make one unsubstantiated claim after another.

http://lesswrong.com/lw/la5/neoreactionaries_why_are_you_neoreactionary/bnzn

comment by 50lbsofstorkmeat · 2015-09-30T06:10:00.382Z · score: 4 (6 votes) · LW · GW

The basic form of the atheistic argument found in the Sequences is as follows: "The theistic hypothesis has high Kolmogorov complexity compared to the atheistic hypothesis. The absence of evidence for God is evidence for the absence of god. This in turn suggests that the large number of proponents of religion is more likely due to God being an improperly privileged hypothesis in our society rather than Less Wrong and the atheist community in general missing key pieces of evidence in favour of the theistic hypothesis."

Now, you could make a counterpoint along the lines of "But what about 'insert my evidence for God here'? Doesn't that suggest the opposite, and that God IS real?" There is almost certainly some standard rebuttal to that particular piece of evidence which most of us have already previously seen. God is a very well discussed topic, and most of the points anyone will bring up have been brought up elsewhere. And so, Less Wrong as a community has for the most part elected to not entertain these sorts of arguments outside of the occasional discussion thread, if only so that we can discuss other topics without every thread becoming about religion (or politics).

comment by TheAncientGeek · 2015-10-05T10:07:06.874Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

yes, the debate here is well worn: the only novelty is less wrong's degree of confidence that they have right answer. Might that be what is attracting debate, as opposed to "most of us are atheists, but whatever".

comment by entirelyuseless · 2015-10-03T17:26:04.142Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

"There is almost certainly some standard rebuttal to that particular piece of evidence..."

Evidence is not something that needs "rebuttal." There is valid evidence both for and against a claim, regardless of whether the claim is true or false.

comment by 50lbsofstorkmeat · 2015-10-04T00:53:16.908Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

That's fair. Though, I'd put my mistake less on the word "rebuttal" and more on the word "evidence." The particular examples I had in mind when writing that post were non-evidence "evidences" of God's existence like the complexity of the human eye, or fine structure of the universe. Cases where things are pointed to as being evidence despite the fact that they are just as and often more likely to exist if God doesn't exist than they would be if he did.

comment by CCC · 2015-09-30T08:16:11.365Z · score: -1 (5 votes) · LW · GW

The theistic hypothesis has high Kolmogorov complexity compared to the atheistic hypothesis.

I find this unconvincing. The basic theistic hypothesis is a description of an omnipotent, omniscient being; together with the probable aims and suspected intentions of such a being. The laws of physics would then derive from this.

The basic atheistic hypothesis is, as far as I understand it, the laws of physics themselves, arising from nothing, simply existing.

I am not convinced that the Kolmogorov complexity of the first is higher then the Kolmogorov complexity of the second. (Mind you, I haven't really compared them all that thoroughly - I could be wrong about that. But it, at the very least, is not obviously higher).

comment by hairyfigment · 2015-10-02T02:08:03.336Z · score: 6 (8 votes) · LW · GW

Before seeing this I thought you rejected all priors based on Kolmogorov complexity, as that seemed like the only way to save your position. (From what you said before you've read at least some of what Eliezer wrote on the difficulty of writing an AGI program. Hopefully you've read about the way that an incautious designer could create levers which do nothing, since the human brain is inclined to underestimate its own complexity.)

While guessing is clearly risky, it seems like you're relying on the idea that a program to simulate the right kind of "omnipotent, omniscient being" would necessarily show it creating our laws of physics. Otherwise it would appear absurd to compare the complexity of the omni-being to that of physics alone. (It also sounds like you're talking about a fundamentally mental entity, not a kind of local tyrant existing within physics.) But you haven't derived any of our physics from even a more specific theistic hypothesis, nor did the many intelligent people who thought about the logical implications of God in the Middle Ages! Do you actually think they just failed to come up with QM or thermodynamics because they didn't think about God enough?

Earlier when you tried to show that assuming any omni-being implied an afterlife, you passed over the alternative of an indifferent omni^2 without giving a good reason. You also skipped the idea of an omni-being not having people die in the first place. In general, a habit of ignoring alternatives will lead you to overestimate the prior probability of your theory. And in this case, if you want to talk about an omni^2 that has an interest in humans, we would naively expect it to create some high-level laws of physics which mention humans. You have not addressed this. It seems like in practice you're taking a scientific model of the world and adding the theistic hypothesis as an additional assumption, which - in the absence of evidence for your theory over the simpler one - lowers the probability by a factor of 2^(something on the order of MIRI's whole reason for being). Or at least it does by assumptions which you seem to accept.

Maybe the principle will be clearer if we approach it from the evidence side. Insofar as an omni^2 seems meaningful, I'd expect its work to be near optimal for achieving its goals. I say that literally nothing in existence which we didn't make is close to optimal for any goal, except a goal that overfits the data in a way that massively lowers that goal's prior probability. Show me an instance. And please remember what I said about examining alternatives.

comment by CCC · 2015-10-05T09:20:17.166Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

While guessing is clearly risky, it seems like you're relying on the idea that a program to simulate the right kind of "omnipotent, omniscient being" would necessarily show it creating our laws of physics.

Yes, I think so.

It also sounds like you're talking about a fundamentally mental entity, not a kind of local tyrant existing within physics.

Yes, that is correct.

But you haven't derived any of our physics from even a more specific theistic hypothesis, nor did the many intelligent people who thought about the logical implications of God in the Middle Ages! Do you actually think they just failed to come up with QM or thermodynamics because they didn't think about God enough?

A few seconds' googling suggests (article here) that a monk by the name of Udo of Aachen figured out the Mandelbrot set some seven hundred years before Mandelbrot did by, essentially, thinking about God. (EDIT: It turns out Udo was an April Fools' hoax from 1999. See here for details.)

Mind you, simply starting from a random conception of God and attempting to derive a universe will essentially lead to a random universe. To start from the right conception of God necessarily requires some sort of observation - and I do think it is easier to derive the laws of physics from observation of the universe than it is to derive the mindset of an omniscient being (since the second seems to require first deriving the laws of physics in order to check your conclusions).


Earlier when you tried to show that assuming any omni-being implied an afterlife, you passed over the alternative of an indifferent omni^2 without giving a good reason. You also skipped the idea of an omni-being not having people die in the first place.

You are right. I skipped over the idea of an entirely indifferent omni-being; that case seems to have minimal probability of an afterlife (as does the atheist universe; in fact, they seem to have the same minimal probability). Showing that the benevolent case increases the probability of an afterlife is then sufficient to show that the probability of an afterlife is higher in the theistic universe than the atheistic universe (though the difference is less than one would expect from examining only the benevolent case).

I also skipped the possibility of there being no death at all; I skipped this due to the observation that this is not the universe in which we live. (I could argue that the process of evolution requires death, but that raises the question of why evolution is important, and the only answer I can think of there - i.e. to create intelligent minds - seems very self-centred)

And in this case, if you want to talk about an omni^2 that has an interest in humans, we would naively expect it to create some high-level laws of physics which mention humans.

I question whether it has an interest in humans specifically, or in intelligent life as a whole. (And there is at least a candidate for a high-level law of physics which mentions humans in particular - "humans have free will". It is not proven, despite much debate over the centuries, but it is not disproven either, and it is hard to see how it can derive from other physical laws)


Insofar as an omni^2 seems meaningful, I'd expect its work to be near optimal for achieving its goals.

This seems likely. It implies that the universe is the optimal method for achieving said goals, and therefore that said goals can be derived from a sufficiently close study of the universe.

It should also be noted that aesthetics may be a part of the design goals; in the same way as a dance is generally a very inefficient way for moving from point A to point B, the universe may have been designed in part to fulfill some (possibly entirely alien) sense of aesthetics.

I say that literally nothing in existence which we didn't make is close to optimal for any goal, except a goal that overfits the data in a way that massively lowers that goal's prior probability. Show me an instance. And please remember what I said about examining alternatives.

I can't seem to think of one off the top of my head. (Mind you, I'm not sure that the goal of the universe has been reached yet; it may be something that we can't recognise until it happens, which may be several billion years away)

comment by hairyfigment · 2015-10-12T02:25:52.504Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Do you actually think they just failed to come up with QM or thermodynamics because they didn't think about God enough?

A few seconds' googling suggests (article here) that a monk by the name of Udo of Aachen figured out the Mandelbrot set some seven hundred years before Mandelbrot did by, essentially, thinking about God.

Took me a while to check this, because of course it would have been evidence for my point. (By the way, throughout this conversation, you've shown little awareness of the concept or the use of evidence in Bayesian thought.)

Are you trolling us?

comment by CCC · 2015-10-12T10:58:33.071Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

...no, I am not intentionally trolling you. Thank you for finding that.

This is the danger of spending only a few seconds googling on a topic; on occasion, one finds oneself being fooled by a hoax page.

comment by gjm · 2015-09-30T11:09:08.691Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

the probable aims and suspected intentions of such a being

The general opinion around here (which I share) is that the complexity of those is much higher than you probably think it is. "Human-level" concepts like "mercy" and "adultery" and "benevolence" and "cowardice" feel simple to us, which means that e.g. saying "God is a perfectly good being" feels like a low-complexity claim; but saying exactly what they mean is incredibly complicated, if it's possible at all. Whereas, e.g., saying "electrons obey the Dirac equation" feels really complicated to us but is actually much simpler.

Of course you're at liberty to say: "No! Actually, human-level concepts really are simple, because the underlying reality of the universe is the mind of God, which entertains such concepts as easily as it does the equations of quantum physics". And maybe the relative plausibility of that position and ours ultimately depends on one's existing beliefs about gods and naturalism and so forth. I suggest that (1) the startling success of reductionist mathematics-based science in understanding, explaining and predicting the universe and (2) the total failure of teleological purpose-based thinking in the same endeavour (see e.g., the problem of evil) give good reason to prefer our position to yours.

The laws of physics would then derive from this.

That sounds really optimistic.

comment by CCC · 2015-10-05T08:27:25.315Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

The general opinion around here (which I share) is that the complexity of those is much higher than you probably think it is.

That is possible. I have no idea how to specify such things in a minimum number of bits of information.

Whereas, e.g., saying "electrons obey the Dirac equation" feels really complicated to us but is actually much simpler.

This is true; yet there may be fewer human-level concepts and more laws of physics. I am still unconvinced which complexity is higher; mainly because I have absolutely no idea how to measure the complexity of either in the first place. (One can do a better job of estimating the complexity of the laws of physics because they are better known, but they are not completely known).


But let us consider what happens if you are right, and the complexity of my hypothesis is higher than the complexity of yours. Then that would form a piece of probabilistic evidence in favour of the atheist hypothesis, and the correct action to take would be to update - once - in that direction by an appropriate amount. I'm not sure what an appropriate amount is; that would depend on the ratio of the complexities (but is capped by the possibility of getting that ratio wrong).

This argument does not, and can not, in itself, give anywhere near the amount of certainty implied by this statement (quoted from here):

...would rather push a button that would destroy the world if God exists, than a button that had a known probability of one in a billion of destroying the world.


I should also add that the existence of God does not invalidate reductionist mathematics-based thinking in any way.

comment by gjm · 2015-10-05T09:40:25.726Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

there may be fewer human-level concepts and more laws of physics

Well, I suppose in principle there might. But would you really want to bet that way?

update - once - in that direction by an appropriate amount

Yes, I completely agree.

capped by the possibility of getting that ratio wrong

Almost, but not exactly. It makes a difference how wrong, and in which direction.

can not [...] give anywhere near the amount of certainty [...] one in a billion

One in a billion is only about 30 bits. I don't think it's at all impossible for the complexity-based calculation, if one could do it, to give a much bigger odds ratio than that. The question then is what to do about the possibility of having got the complexity-based calculation (or actually one's estimate of it) badly wrong. I'm inclined to agree that when one takes that into account it's not reasonable to use an odds ratio as large as 10^9:1.

But it's not as if this complexity argument is the only reason anyone has for not believing in God. (Some people consider it the strongest reason, but "strongest" is not the same as "only".)

Incidentally, I offer the following (not entirely serious) argument for pressing the boom-if-God button rather than the boom-with-small-probability button: the chances of the world being undestroyed afterwards are presumably better if God exists.

comment by CCC · 2015-10-06T10:07:34.476Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Well, I suppose in principle there might. But would you really want to bet that way?

Insufficient information to bet either way.

The question then is what to do about the possibility of having got the complexity-based calculation (or actually one's estimate of it) badly wrong. I'm inclined to agree that when one takes that into account it's not reasonable to use an odds ratio as large as 10^9:1.

Yes, that's what I meant by "capped" - if I did that calculation (somehow working out the complexities) and it told me that there was a one-in-a-billion chance, then there would be a far, far better than a one-in-a-billion chance that the calculation was wrong.

But it's not as if this complexity argument is the only reason anyone has for not believing in God. (Some people consider it the strongest reason, but "strongest" is not the same as "only".)

Noted.

If I assume that the second-strongest reason is (say) 80% as strong as the strongest reason (by which I mean, 80% as many bits of persuasiveness), the third-strongest reason is 80% as strong as that, and so on; if the strength of all this (potentially infinite) series of reasons is added together, it would come to five times as strong as the strongest reason.

Thus, for a thirty-bit strength from all the reasons, the strongest reason would need a six-bit strength - it would need to be worth one in sixty-four (approximately).

Of course, there's a whole lot of vague assumptions and hand-waving in here (particularly that 80% figure, which I just pulled out of nowhere) but, well, I haven't seen any reason to think it at all likely that the complexity argument is worth even three bits, never mind six.

(Mind you, I can see how a reasonable and intelligent person might disagree on me about that).

Incidentally, I offer the following (not entirely serious) argument for pressing the boom-if-God button rather than the boom-with-small-probability button: the chances of the world being undestroyed afterwards are presumably better if God exists.

...serious or not, that is a point worth considering. I'm not sure that it's true, but it could be interesting to debate.

comment by gjm · 2015-10-06T16:29:35.660Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

80% [...] 80% [...] 80%

I would expect heavier tails than that. (For other questions besides that of gods, too.) I'd expect that there might be dozens of reasons providing half a bit or so.

I haven't seen any reason to think it at all likely that the complexity argument is worth even three bits, never mind six.

For what it's worth, I might rate it at maybe 7 bits. Whether I'm a reasonable and intelligent person isn't for me to say :-).

comment by CCC · 2015-10-07T11:24:16.165Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I would expect heavier tails than that. (For other questions besides that of gods, too.) I'd expect that there might be dozens of reasons providing half a bit or so.

Fair enough. That 80% figure was kindof pulled out of nowhere, really.

For what it's worth, I might rate it at maybe 7 bits. Whether I'm a reasonable and intelligent person isn't for me to say :-).

You think the theistic explanation might be as much as a hundred times more complex?

...there may be some element of my current position biasing my estimate, but that does seem a little excessive.

Whether I'm a reasonable and intelligent person isn't for me to say :-).

So far as this debate goes, my impression is that you either are both reasonable and intelligent or you're really good at faking it.

comment by gjm · 2015-10-07T14:24:04.388Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

as much as a hundred times more complex?

No, as much as seven bits more complex. (More precisely, I think it's probably a lot more more-complex than that, but I'm quite uncertain about my estimates.)

really good at faking it

Damn, you caught me. (Seriously: I'm pretty sure that being really good at faking intelligence requires intelligence. I'm not so sure about reasonable-ness.)

comment by CCC · 2015-10-08T09:08:50.271Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

No, as much as seven bits more complex.

One bit is twice as likely.

Seven bits are two-to-the-seven times as likely, which is 128 times.

...surely?

(Seriously: I'm pretty sure that being really good at faking intelligence requires intelligence. I'm not so sure about reasonable-ness.)

I can think of a few ways to fake greater intelligence then you have. Most of them require a more intelligent accomplice, in one way or another. But yes, reasonableness is probably easier to fake.

comment by gjm · 2015-10-08T11:21:27.220Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

128x more unlikely but not 128x more complex; for me, at least, complexity is measured in bits rather than in number-of-possibilities.

[EDITED to add: If anyone has a clue why this was downvoted, I'd be very interested. It seems so obviously innocuous that I suspect it's VoiceOfRa doing his thing again, but maybe I'm being stupid in some way I'm unable to see.]

comment by CCC · 2015-10-12T10:35:03.723Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

...I thought that the ratio of likeliness due to the complexity argument would be the inverse of the ratio of complexity. Thus, something twice as complex would be half as likely. Is this somehow incorrect?

(I have no idea why it was downvoted)

comment by gjm · 2015-10-12T11:01:03.487Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Is this somehow incorrect?

All else being equal, something that takes n bits to specify has probability proportional to 2^-n. So if hypothesis A takes 110 bits and hypothesis B takes 100, then A is about 1000x less probable.

Exactly what "all else being equal" means is somewhat negotiable.

  • If you are using a Solomonoff prior, it means: in advance of looking at any empirical evidence at all, the probability you assign to a hypothesis should be proportional to 2^-n where n is the number of bits in a minimal computer program that specifies the hypothesis, in a language satisfying some technical conditions. Exactly how this cashes out depends on the details of the language you use, and there's no way of actually computing the numbers n in general, and there's no law that says you have to use a Solomonoff prior anyway.
  • More generally, whatever prior you use, there are 2^n hypotheses of length n (and if you describe them in a language satisfying those technical conditions, then they are all genuinely different and as n varies you get every computable hypothesis) so (handwave handwave) on average for large n an n-bit hypothesis has to have probability something like 2^-n.

Anyway, the point is that the natural way to measure complexity is in bits, and probability varies exponentially, not linearly, with number of bits.

comment by CCC · 2015-10-13T10:26:03.403Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

So if hypothesis A takes 110 bits and hypothesis B takes 100, then A is about 1000x less probable.

Yes, and hypothesis A is also 1024x as complex - since it takes ten more bits to specify.

Anyway, the point is that the natural way to measure complexity is in bits, and probability varies exponentially, not linearly, with number of bits.

...it seems that our disagreement here is in the measure of complexity, and not the measure of probability. My measure of complexity is pretty much the inverse of probability, while you're working on a log scale by measuring it in terms of a number of bits.

comment by gjm · 2015-10-13T13:05:21.164Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Yes, apparently we're using the word "complexity" differently.

So, getting back to what I said that apparently surprised you: Yes, I think it is very plausible that the best theistic explanation for everything we observe around us is what I call "7 bits more complex" and you call "128x more complex" than the best non-theistic explanation; just to be clear what that means, I mean that if we could somehow write down a minimal-length complete description of what we see (compressing it via computer programs / laws of physics / etc.) subject to the constraint "must not make essential use of gods", and another subject instead to the constraint "must make essential use of gods", then my guess at the length of the second description is >= 7 bits longer than my guess at the length of the first. Actually I think the second description would have to be much longerer than that, but I'm discounting because this is confusing stuff and I'm far from certain that I'm right.

And you, if I'm understanding you correctly, are objecting not so much "no, the theistic description will be simpler" as "well, maybe you're right that the nontheistic description will be simpler, but we should expect it to be simpler by less than one random ASCII character's worth of description length".

Of course the real diffiulty here is that we aren't in a position to say what a minimal length theistic or nontheistic description of the universe would look like. We have a reasonable set of laws of physics that might form the core of the nontheistic description, but (1) we know the laws we have aren't quite right, (2) it seems likely that the vast bulk of the complexity needed is not in the laws but in whatever arbitrary-so-far-as-we-know boundary conditions[1] need to be added to get our universe rather than a completely different one with the same laws, and we've no idea how much information that takes or even whether it's finite. And on the theistic side we have at most a pious hope that something like "this is the best of all possible worlds" might suffice, but no clear idea of how to specify what notion of "best" is appropriate, and the world looks so much unlike the best of all possible worlds according to any reasonable notion that this fact is generally considered one of the major reasons for disbelieving in gods. So what hope have we of figuring out which description is shorter?

[1] On some ways of looking at the problem, what needs specifying is not so much boundary conditions as our location within a vast universe or multiverse. Similar problem.

comment by CCC · 2015-10-14T09:20:02.199Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Actually I think the second description would have to be much longerer than that, but I'm discounting because this is confusing stuff and I'm far from certain that I'm right.

It is confusing. I'm still not even convinced that the theist's description would be longer, but my estimation is so vague and has such massively large error bars that I can't say you're wrong, even if what you're saying is surprising to me.

And you, if I'm understanding you correctly, are objecting not so much "no, the theistic description will be simpler" as "well, maybe you're right that the nontheistic description will be simpler, but we should expect it to be simpler by less than one random ASCII character's worth of description length".

More or less. I'm saying I would find it surprising if the existence of God made the universe significantly more complex. (In the absolutely minimal-length description, I expect it to work out shorter, but like I say above, there are massive error bars on my estimates).

the world looks so much unlike the best of all possible worlds according to any reasonable notion

While I've heard this argued before, I have yet to see an idea for a world that (a) is provably better, (b) cannot be created by sufficient sustained human effort (in an "if everyone works together" kind of way) and (c) cannot be taken apart by sustained human effort into a world vaguely resembling ours (in an "if there are as many criminals and greedy people as in this world").

I'm not saying that there isn't nasty stuff in this world. I'm just not seeing a way that it can be removed without also removing things like free will.

what hope have we of figuring out which description is shorter?

Very little, really. There's a lot of unknowns.

comment by gjm · 2015-10-14T10:41:16.513Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

If we get seriously into discussing arguments from evil we could be here all year :-), so I'll just make a few points and leave it.

(1) Many religious believers, including (I think) the great majority of Christians, anticipate a future state in which sin and suffering and death will be no more. I'm pretty sure they see this as a good thing, whether they anticipate losing their free will to get it or not.

(2) I don't know whether I can see any way to make a world with nothing nasty in it at all without losing other things we care about, but it doesn't seem difficult to envisage ways in which omnipotence in the service of perfect goodness could improve the world substantially. For instance, consider a world exactly like this one except that whenever any cell in any animal's body (human or other) gets into a state that would lead to a malignant tumour, God magically kills it. Boom, no more cancer. (And no effect at all on anyone who wouldn't otherwise be getting cancer.) For an instance of a very different kind, imagine that one day people who pray actually start getting answers. Consistently. I don't mean obliging answers to petitionary prayers, I mean communication. Suddenly anyone who prays gets a response; the responses are consistent and, for some categories of public prayer, public. There is no longer any more scope for wars about whose vision of God is right than there is for wars about whose theory of gravity is right, and anyone who tries to recruit people to blow things up in the name of God gets contradicted by a message from God himself. There might still be scope for fights between people who think it's God doing this and people who think it's a super-powerful evil being, but I don't think it's credible that this wouldn't decrease religious strife. And if you think that being badly wrong about God is a serious problem (whether just because it's bad to be wrong about important things, or because it leads to worse actions, or because it puts one in danger of damnation) then I hope you'll agree that almost everyone on earth having basically correct beliefs about God would be a gain. And no, it wouldn't mean abolishing free will; do we lack free will because we find it difficult to believe the sky is green on account of seeing it ourselves?

(3) I think your conditions a,b,c are too strict, in that I see no reason why candidate better worlds need to satisfy them all in order to be evidence that our actual world isn't the best possible. Perhaps, e.g., a better world is possible that could be created by sustained human effort with everyone working together but won't because actually, in practice, in the world we've got, everyone doesn't work together. So, OK, you can blame humanity for the fact that we haven't created that world, and maybe doing so makes you feel better, but more than one agent can be rightly blamed for the same thing and the fact that it's (kinda) our fault doesn't mean it isn't God's. Do you suppose he couldn't have encouraged us more effectively to do better? If not, doesn't the fact that not even the most effective encouragement infinite wisdom could devise would lead us to do it suggest that saying we could is rather misleading? And (this is a point I think is constantly missed) whyever should we treat human nature, as it now is, as a given? Could your god really not have arranged for humanity to be a little nicer and smarter? In terms of your condition (c), why on earth should we, when considering what better worlds there might be, only consider candidates in which "there are as many criminals and greedy people as in this world"?

comment by CCC · 2015-10-15T09:48:37.779Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Many religious believers, including (I think) the great majority of Christians, anticipate a future state in which sin and suffering and death will be no more. I'm pretty sure they see this as a good thing, whether they anticipate losing their free will to get it or not.

I've heard arguments that we've already reached that state - think about if you go back in time about two thousand years and describe modern medical technology and lifestyles. (I don't agree with those arguments, mind you, but I do think that such a future state is going to have to be something that we build, not that we are given.

it doesn't seem difficult to envisage ways in which omnipotence in the service of perfect goodness could improve the world substantially.

It's difficult to be certain.

For instance, consider a world exactly like this one except that whenever any cell in any animal's body (human or other) gets into a state that would lead to a malignant tumour, God magically kills it. Boom, no more cancer.

Now I'm imagining a lot of scientists studying and trying to figure out why some cells just mysteriously vanish for no good reason - and this becoming the greatest unsolved question in medical science and taking all the attention of people who might otherwise be figuring out cures for TB or various types of flu. (In this hypothetical universe, they wouldn't know about malignant tumours, of course).

And if someone would otherwise develop a LOT of cancer, then Sudden Cell Vanishing Syndrome could, in itself, become a major problem...

Mind, I'm not saying it's certain that universe would be worse, or even that it's probable. It's just easy to see how that universe could be worse.

For an instance of a very different kind, imagine that one day people who pray actually start getting answers. Consistently. I don't mean obliging answers to petitionary prayers, I mean communication

That would be interesting. And you raise a lot of good points - there would be a lot of positive effects. But, at the same time... I think HPMOR showed quite nicely that sometimes, having a list of instructions with regard to what to do is a good deal less valuable than being able to understand the situation, take responsibility, and do it yourself.

People would still have free will, yes. But how many people would voluntarily abdicate their decision-making processes to simply do what the voice in the sky tells them to do (except the bits where it says "THINK FOR YOURSELVES")?

...this is something which I think would probably be a net benefit. But I can't be certain.

I think your conditions a,b,c are too strict

...very probably.

Perhaps, e.g., a better world is possible that could be created by sustained human effort with everyone working together but won't because actually, in practice, in the world we've got, everyone doesn't work together.

That just means that a better world needs to be designed that can be created under the constraints of not everyone working together. It's a hard problem, but I don't think it's entirely insoluble.

And (this is a point I think is constantly missed) whyever should we treat human nature, as it now is, as a given? Could your god really not have arranged for humanity to be a little nicer and smarter?

That is a good question. I have no good answers for it.

why on earth should we, when considering what better worlds there might be, only consider candidates in which "there are as many criminals and greedy people as in this world"?

...less criminals and greedy people would make things a lot easier, but I'm not quite sure how to arrange that without either (a) reducing free will or (b) mass executions, which could cause other problems.

comment by gjm · 2015-10-15T12:07:02.372Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I've heard arguments that we've already reached that state

Then I suggest that you classify the people making those arguments as Very Silly and don't listen to them in future.

I do think that such a future state is going to have to be something that we build, not that we are given.

You're welcome to think that; my point is simply that if such a thing is possible and desirable then either one can have a better world than this without abrogating free will, or else free will isn't as important as theists often claim it is when confronted with arguments from evil.

(Perhaps your position is that the world could indeed be much better, but that the only way to make such a better world without abrogating free will is to have us do it gradually starting with a really bad world. I hope I will be forgiven for saying that that doesn't seem like a position anyone would adopt for reasons other than a desperate attempt to avoid the conclusion of the argument from evil.)

I'm imagining a lot of scientists studying and trying to figure out why some cells just mysteriously vanish for no good reason

Again, you're welcome to imagine whatever you like, but if you're suggesting that this would be a likely consequence of the scenario I proposed then I think you're quite wrong (and again wonder whether it would occur to you to imagine that if you weren't attempting to justify the existence of cancer to defend your god's reputation). Under what circumstances would they notice this? Cells die all the time. We don't have the technology to monitor every cell -- or more than a tiny fraction of cells -- in a living animal and see if it dies. We don't have the technology or the medical understanding to be able to say "huh, that cell died and I don't know why; that's really unusual". Maybe some hypothetical super-advanced medical science would be flummoxed by this, but right now I'm pretty sure no one would come close to noticing.

(Also, you could combine this with my second proposal, and then what happens is that someone says "hey, God, would you mind telling us why these cells are dying?" and God says "oh, yeah, those are ones that were going wrong and would have turned into runaway growths that could kill you. I zap those just before they do. You're welcome.".)

And if someone would otherwise develop a LOT of cancer [...]

Please, think about that scenario for thirty seconds, and consider whether you can actually envisage a situation where having those cancerous cells self-destruct would be worse than having them turn into tumours.

sometimes, having a list of instructions with regard to what to do [...]

But that was no part of the scenario I described. In that scenario, it could be that when people ask God for advice he says "Sorry, it's going to be better for you to work this one out on your own."

without either (a) reducing free will [...]

So here's the thing. Apparently "reducing free will" is a terrible awful thing so bad that its spectre justifies the Holocaust and child sex abuse and all the other awful things that bad people do without being stopped by God. So ... how come we don't have more free will than we do? Why are we so readily manipulated by advertisements, so easily entrapped by habits, so easily overwhelmed by the desire for food or sex or whatever? It seems to me that if we take this sort of "free will defence" seriously enough for it to work, then we replace (or augment) the argument from evil with an equally fearsome argument from un-freedom.

comment by CCC · 2015-10-16T10:58:54.412Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Then I suggest that you classify the people making those arguments as Very Silly and don't listen to them in future.

...perhaps I have failed to properly convey that argument. I did not intend to say that our world now is in a state of perfection. I intended to point out that, if you were to go back in time a couple of thousand years and talk to a random person about our current society, then he would be likely to imagine it as a state of perfection. Similarly, if a random person in this era were to describe a state of perfection, then that might be a description of society a couple of thousand years from now - and the people of that time would still not consider their world in a state of perfection.

In short, "perfection" may be a state that can only be approached asymptotically. We can get closer to it, but never reach it; we can labour to reduce the gap, but never fully eliminate it.

my point is simply that if such a thing is possible and desirable then either one can have a better world than this without abrogating free will, or else free will isn't as important as theists often claim it is when confronted with arguments from evil.

You mean, just kind of starting up the universe at the point where all the major social problems have already been solved, with everyone having a full set of memories of how to keep the solutions working and what happens if you don't?

...I have little idea why the universe isn't like that (and the little idea I have is impractically speculative).

Perhaps your position is that the world could indeed be much better, but that the only way to make such a better world without abrogating free will is to have us do it gradually starting with a really bad world.

The only way? No. Starting a universe at the point where the answers to society's problems are known is a possible way to do that.

...the thing is, I don't know what the goal, the purpose of the universe is. Free will is clearly a very important part of those aims - either a goal in itself, or strictly necessary in order to achieve some other goal or goals - but I'm fairly sure it's not the only one. It may be that other ways of making a better world without abrogating free will all come at the cost of some other important thing that is somehow necessary for the universe.

Though this is all very speculative, and the argument is rather shaky.

Under what circumstances would they notice this? Cells die all the time. We don't have the technology to monitor every cell -- or more than a tiny fraction of cells -- in a living animal and see if it dies.

Okay, if the cells just die and don't vanish, then that makes it a whole lot less physics-breaking. (Alternatively, if they are simply replaced with healthy cells, then it becomes even harder to spot).

(Also, you could combine this with my second proposal, and then what happens is that someone says "hey, God, would you mind telling us why these cells are dying?" and God says "oh, yeah, those are ones that were going wrong and would have turned into runaway growths that could kill you. I zap those just before they do. You're welcome.".)

...you know, combining those would be interesting as well. (Then the next logical question asked would be "Why don't you zap all diseases?")

Please, think about that scenario for thirty seconds, and consider whether you can actually envisage a situation where having those cancerous cells self-destruct would be worse than having them turn into tumours.

No, I can't. This guy's in massive trouble either way.

But that was no part of the scenario I described. In that scenario, it could be that when people ask God for advice he says "Sorry, it's going to be better for you to work this one out on your own."

A fair point.

Some people would be discouraged by this, others would work harder...

So here's the thing. Apparently "reducing free will" is a terrible awful thing so bad that its spectre justifies the Holocaust and child sex abuse and all the other awful things that bad people do without being stopped by God.

Yes, and I'm not quite sure that I get the whole of the why either.

So ... how come we don't have more free will than we do? Why are we so readily manipulated by advertisements, so easily entrapped by habits, so easily overwhelmed by the desire for food or sex or whatever?

...huh. That's... that's a very good question, really.

Hmmm. It seems logical that it must be possible to talk someone into (or out of) a course of action. "Here is some information that shows why it is to your benefit to do X" has to be possible, or there is no point to communication and we might as well all be alone.

And given that that is possible, advertising is an inevitable consequence - tell a million people to buy Tasty Cheese Snax or whatever, and some of them will listen. (More complex use of advertising is merely a refinement of technique). I don't really see any logical alternative - either advertising, which is a special case of persuasion, has to work to some degree, or persuasion must be impossible. (If persuasion of a specific type proves impossible, advertisers will simply use a form of persuasion that is effective).

Habits... as far as I can tell, habits are a consequence of the structure of the human brain (we're pattern-recognition machines, and almost all biases and problems in human thought come from this). A habit is merely a pattern of action; something that we find ourselves doing by default. Avoiding habits would require a pretty much total rewrite of the human brain. Which may be a good or a bad thing, but is a completely unknown thing.

Desires for food and stuff? ...I have no idea. You could probably base an argument from unfreedom around that. (It's clear enough where the desires come from - people without those desires would have been outcompeted by people with them, so there's evolutionary pressure to have those biases. Is this an inevitable consequence of an evolutionary development?)

comment by gjm · 2015-10-16T11:40:34.227Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I realise that I said "I'll just make a few points and leave it" and then, er, failed to do so. And lo, this looks like it could be the beginning of a lengthy discussion of evil and theism, for which LW probably really isn't the best venue. So I'm going to ignore all the object-level issues aside from giving a couple of clarifications (see below) and make the following meta-point:

You seem to be basically agreeing with my arguments and conceding that your counterproposals are shaky and speculative; my point isn't to declare victory nor to suggest you should be abandoning theism immediately :-) but just that I think this indicates that you agree with me that whether or not the world turns out to be somehow the best that omnipotence coupled with perfect wisdom and goodness can achieve, it doesn't look much like it is. In which case I don't think you can credibly make an argument of the form "the world is well explained by the hypothesis that it's a morally-optimal world, which is a nice simple hypothesis, so we should consider that highly probable". I've argued before that it's not so simple a hypothesis, but it's also a really terrible explanation for the world we actually see.

The promised clarifications: 1. The reason why my cancer-zapping proposal didn't involve curing all diseases was that it's easier to see that a change is a clear improvement if it's reasonably small and simple. Curing all diseases is a really big leap, it probably makes a huge difference to typical lifespans and hence to all kinds of other things in society, it probably would get noticed which, for good or ill, could make a big difference to people's ideas about science and gods and whatnot. I would in fact expect the overall effect to be substantially more positive than that of just zapping incipient cancers, but it's more complicated and therefore less clear. I'm not trying to describe an optimal world, merely one that's clearly better than this one. 2. My point about habits and advertising and the like wasn't that if free will matters then those things should have no effect, still less that it's a mystery why we have them; but that if our world is being optimized by a superbeing who values free will so much that, e.g., Hitler's free will matters more than the murder of six million Jews, then we should expect much less impairment of our free will than we actually seem to have.

comment by CCC · 2015-10-19T09:21:44.283Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I realise that I said "I'll just make a few points and leave it" and then, er, failed to do so.

...to be fair, I think I also deserve part of the blame for this digression. I have a tendency to run away with minor points on occasion.

whether or not the world turns out to be somehow the best that omnipotence coupled with perfect wisdom and goodness can achieve, it doesn't look much like it is.

I agree that this is a position which can reasonably be held and for which very strong arguments can be made.

The reason why my cancer-zapping proposal didn't involve curing all diseases was that it's easier to see that a change is a clear improvement if it's reasonably small and simple.

Makes sense. (It does raise the question of how we would know whether or not it is already happening for an even more virulent disease...)

if our world is being optimized by a superbeing who values free will so much that, e.g., Hitler's free will matters more than the murder of six million Jews,

To be fair, it wasn't just Hitler; there were a whole lot of people working under his command whose free will was also involved. And several million other people trying to help or hinder one side or the other...

comment by gjm · 2015-10-19T10:54:02.999Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

it wasn't just Hitler

I think if you hypothetically let Hitler rise to power but then magically prevent him from giving orders to persecute Jews more severely than (say) requiring them to live in ghettos, you probably prevent the Holocaust without provoking a coup in which someone more viciously antisemitic takes over. Or killing him in childhood or letting his artistic career succeed better would probably suffice (maybe Germany would then have been taken over by different warmongers blaming their troubles on other groups, but is it really credible that in every such version of the world we get something as bad as Hitler?).

Of course it might turn out that WW2 was terribly beneficial to the world because it led to technological advances and the Holocaust was beneficial because it led to the establishment of the state of Israel, or something. But that's an entirely different defence from the one we're discussing here, and I can't say it seems like a very credible one anyway. (If we really need those technological advances and the state of Israel, aren't there cheaper ways for omnipotence to arrange for us to get them?)

comment by CCC · 2015-10-20T09:18:09.884Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I think if you hypothetically let Hitler rise to power but then magically prevent him from giving orders to persecute Jews more severely than (say) requiring them to live in ghettos, you probably prevent the Holocaust without provoking a coup in which someone more viciously antisemitic takes over.

I, too, think that this is extremely likely. This would show that Hitler's orders were necessary for the Holocaust, but it would not show that they were sufficient - there's probably at least a half-dozen or so people whose orders were also necessary for the Holocaust, and then of course there's a lot of ways to prevent the Holocaust by affecting more than one person in some or other manner.

Of course it might turn out that WW2 was terribly beneficial to the world because it led to technological advances and the Holocaust was beneficial because it led to the establishment of the state of Israel, or something.

I doubt the political ramifications had much to do with it. The effect of thousands of people being placed in difficult moral situations and having to decide what to do might have been a factor, though; a sort of a stress testing of thousands of peoples' free will, in a way which by and large strengthens their ability to think for themselves (because they're now well aware of how bad things get when others think for them).

comment by gjm · 2015-10-20T10:48:06.970Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

it would not show that they were sufficient

It doesn't need to. The more ways there are to prevent the Holocaust, the more morally unimpressive not doing so becomes. Or, at least, the better the countervailing reasons need to be.

a sort of a stress testing of thousands of people's free will, in a way which by and large strengthens their ability to think for themselves

Six million Jews and six million others died in the Holocaust. It is not so easy to think for yourself when you are dead.

(Or: It is very easy to think for yourself when you are dead because you have then transcended the confusions and temptations of this mortal life. But I don't think anyone's going to argue seriously that the Holocaust was a good thing because the people murdered in it were thereby enabled to make better decisions post mortem. The only reason for this paragraph is to forestall complaints that the one before it assumes atheism.)

comment by CCC · 2015-10-21T08:49:29.098Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

it would not show that they were sufficient

It doesn't need to.

So, um... to go back along this line of argument a few posts, then...

it wasn't just Hitler; there were a whole lot of people working under his command whose free will was also involved.

...this means you're in agreement with what I wrote here, right?

I'm not sure exactly what point you're trying to make.

Six million Jews and six million others died in the Holocaust. It is not so easy to think for yourself when you are dead.

And several million other people hid jews in their attics; attempted (at great personal risk) to smuggle jews to safe places; helped jews across the borders; or, on the other side, hunted jews down, deciding to obey evil orders; arrested people and sent them to death camps; ran or even built said camps... and were, in one or another way, put through the wringer.

I can't find the reference now, but I do seem to recall reading - somewhere - that Holocaust survivors were significantly less likely to fall victim to the Milgram experiment or similar things.

(I'm not talking about the people who were killed at all.)

comment by gjm · 2015-10-21T10:59:38.215Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I'm not sure exactly what point you're trying to make.

1. The Holocaust could probably have been prevented, with no extra adverse consequences of similar severity, by an intervention that didn't interfere with more than one person's free will. 2. Therefore, a "free will" defence of (the compatibility of theism with) the world's evil needs to consider that one person's free will to be of comparable importance to all the suffering and death of the Holocaust. 3. If free will is that important, then in place of (or in addition to) the "problem of evil" we have a "problem of unfreedom"; we are all less free than we might have been, in many ways, and even if that unfreedom is only one millionth as severe as what it would have taken to stop the Holocaust, a billion people's unfreedom is like a thousand Holocausts. 4. This seems to me to be a fatal objection to this sort of "free will" theodicy. (The real problem is clearly in step 2; we all know, really, that Hitler's free will -- or that of any of the other people whose different decisions would have sufficed to prevent the Holocaust -- isn't more important than millions of horrible deaths.)

And several million other people [...]

I'm pretty sure the number who hid Jews in their attics, helped them escape, etc., was a lot less than six million. And, please, actually think about this for a moment. Consider (1) what the Nazis did to the Jews and (2) what some less-corrupted Germans did to help the Jews. Do you really, truly, want to suggest that #2 was a greater good than #1 was an evil? And are you seriously suggesting that the fact that a whole lot of other Germans had the glorious opportunity to exercise their free will and decide to go along with the extermination of the Jews makes this better?

I think I recall reading of a Christian/atheist debate in which someone -- Richard Swinburne? -- made a similar suggestion, and his opponent -- Peter Atkins? Christopher Hitchens? -- was heard to growl "May you rot in hell". I personally think hell is too severe a punishment even for the likes of Hitler, and did even when I was a Christian, but I agree with the overall sentiment.

comment by CCC · 2015-10-22T08:24:24.071Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

(explanation of your point)

Oh.

...you know, a lot of what you've been saying over the past few days makes so much more sense now. In effect, you're looking for the minimum intervention to prevent the Holocaust. (And it should have been possible to do that without taking control of Hitler's actions; a sudden stroke, bolt of lightning, or well-timed meteor strike could have prevented Hitler from ever doing anything again without removing free will). Considering how much importance the universe seems to put on free will, this might be considered an even more minimal intervention (and no matter how much importance free will is assigned, one life is less than six million lives).

Which leads us directly to the question of why lightning doesn't strike sufficiently evil people, preferably just before they do something sufficiently evil.

To which the answer, expressed in the simplest possible form, is "I don't know". (At best, I can theorise out loud, but it's all going to end up circling back round to "I don't know" in the end).

I'm pretty sure the number who hid Jews in their attics, helped them escape, etc., was a lot less than six million.

Well, if each one was helped by one person, refused help by one person, and arrested by one person, then that's eighteen million moral dilemmas being faced. (Presumably one person could face several of these dilemmas).

Consider (1) what the Nazis did to the Jews and (2) what some less-corrupted Germans did to help the Jews. Do you really, truly, want to suggest that #2 was a greater good than #1 was an evil?

No. I don't. I'm very sure that it's nowhere near a complete picture of all the consequences of the Holocaust, but (2) is nowhere near (1).

...and neither (2) nor (1) (nor both of them together) are a complete accounting of all the consequences of the Holocaust.

I personally think hell is too severe a punishment even for the likes of Hitler, and did even when I was a Christian,

I have it on good authority (from a parish priests' sermon, unfortunately he does not publish his sermons to the internet so I can't link it) that the RCC agrees with you on this point.

comment by Lumifer · 2015-10-21T14:50:23.948Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

by an intervention that didn't interfere with more than one person's free will.

That implies the "great people" approach to human history (history is shaped by actions of individual great people, not by large and diffuse economic/social/political/etc. forces) -- are you willing to accept it?

comment by gjm · 2015-10-21T15:41:29.885Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I think it implies only a rather weak version of the "great people" approach: some things of historical significance are down to individual people. (Who might be "great" in some sense, but might instead simply have been in a critical place at a critical time.) And yes, I'm perfectly willing to accept that; is there a reason why you would expect me not to?

Without Hitler, Germany would still have been unstable and at risk of being swayed by some sort of extremist demagogue willing to blame its troubles on Someone Else. So I'd assign a reasonable probability to something not entirely unlike the Nazi regime arising even without Hitler. It might even have had the National Socialists in charge. But their rhetoric wouldn't have been the same, their policies wouldn't have been the same, their tactics in war (if a war happened) wouldn't have been the same, and many things would accordingly have been different. The extermination of millions of Jews doesn't seem particularly inevitable, and I would guess that in (so to speak) most possible worlds in which Hitler is somehow taken out of the picture early on, there isn't anything very much like the Holocaust.

comment by Lumifer · 2015-10-21T15:57:10.686Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

some things of historical significance are down to individual people.

That, of course, is not a falsifiable statement :-)

comment by gjm · 2015-10-21T16:01:39.596Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

It's not my fault if the nearest correct thing to the "great people" theory that actually follows from my opinions happens not to be falsifiable. (It's not even clear that strong forms of the "great people" theory are falsifiable, actually.)

comment by Lumifer · 2015-10-21T16:03:21.238Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

It's not my fault if the nearest correct thing to the "great people" theory that actually follows from my opinions happens not to be falsifiable.

I am not talking about faults, but if it's not falsifiable, can it be of any use?

comment by entirelyuseless · 2015-10-21T16:19:48.608Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Of course an opinion can be useful without being falsifiable. "Human life as we see it is not utterly worthless and meaningless," is probably not falsifiable (how would you falsify it?), but believing it is very useful for avoiding suicide and the like.

comment by Lumifer · 2015-10-21T16:33:35.470Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Opinions are not falsifiable by their nature (well, maybe by revealed preferences). But, hopefully, core approaches to the study of history (e.g. "great people" vs "impersonal forces") are more than mere opinions.

comment by gjm · 2015-10-21T16:33:11.897Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Quite possibly not. Is that a problem? (The way this conversation feels to me: You claim that X follows from my opinions. I say: no, only the much weaker X' does. You then complain that X' is unfalsifiable and useless. Quite possibly, but so what? I expect everyone has beliefs from which one can deduce unfalsifiable and useless things.)

comment by Lumifer · 2015-10-21T16:47:37.728Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

A recap from my side: I didn't claim that X follows from your opinions -- I asked if you subscribe to the theory. You said yes, to a weak version. I pointed out that the weak version is unfalsifiable and useless. You said "so what?"

I don't think that a version of a theory that has been sufficiently diluted and hedged to be unfalsifiable and so useless can be said to be a meaningful version of a theory. It's just generic mush.

I'm not trying to trap you. I was interested in whether you actually believe in the "great people" theory (homeopathic versions don't count). It now seems that you don't. That is perfectly fine.

comment by gjm · 2015-10-21T17:12:40.395Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I didn't claim that X follows from your opinions -- I asked

Actually, you did both:

That implies the "great people" approach to human history [...] -- are you willing to accept it?

(An aside: where I come from, saying "Your opinion implies X; are you willing to accept X?" is a more adversarial move than simply saying "Your opinion implies X" since it carries at least a suggestion that maybe they believe things that imply X without accepting X, hence inconsistency or insincerity or something.)

It's just generic mush.

My point, in case it wasn't clear, is that the nearest thing to the "great people" theory that actually follows from anything I've said is what you are describing as "generic mush". (Perhaps next time I will be less polite and just say "No, that's bullshit, no such thing follows from anything I've said" rather than trying to find the nearest thing I can that does follow. I was hoping that you would either explain why it would be interesting if I accepted the "generic mush" or else explain why you think something stronger than the "generic mush" follows from what I wrote, and confess myself rather taken aback at the tack you have actually taken.)

As to the "great people" theory: I believe that some historical events are down to the actions of individuals (who may or may not be great in any other sense) while some are much more the result of large and diffuse phenomena involving many people. That isn't a statement that has a lot of readily evaluable observable consequences, but it's the best answer I can give to the question you asked. (As I said above, I'm not sure that the "great people" theory itself, even in strong forms, actually fares any better in terms of verifiability or falsifiability.)

comment by Lumifer · 2015-10-21T17:31:11.151Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW
comment by TheAncientGeek · 2015-09-30T15:09:47.757Z · score: -1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Note that infinite sets can have very low informational complexity-- that's why complexity isn't a slam-dunk against MUH.

Don't think of infinite entities as very large finite entities.

comment by gjm · 2015-09-30T15:23:23.181Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I'm pretty sure I wasn't thinking of infinite entities as very large finite entities, nor was I claiming that infinite sets must have infinite complexity or anything of the kind. What I was claiming high complexity for is the concept of "good", not God or "perfectly good" as opposed to "merely very good".

comment by TheAncientGeek · 2015-09-30T18:19:32.245Z · score: -1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Wouldn't "perfectly good" be the appropriate concept here?

comment by gjm · 2015-09-30T22:06:03.028Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Yes, but the point is that the "perfectly" part (1) isn't what I'm blaming for the complexity and (2) doesn't appear to me to make the complexity go away by its presence.

comment by TheAncientGeek · 2015-10-01T08:27:37.650Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I don't see how you can be sure about, when there is so much disagreement about the meaning of good. Human preferences are complex because they are idiosyncratic, but why would a deity, particularly a "philosopher's god", have idiosyncratic preferences? And an omniscient deity could easily be a 100% accurate consequentialist..the difficult part of consequentialism, having reliable knowledge of the consequences, has been granted...all you need to add to omniscience is a Good Will.

IOW, regarding both atheism and consequentialism as slam-dunks is a bit of a problem, because if you follow through the consequences of consequentialism, many of the arguments atheism unravel: a consequentialist deity is fully entitled to destroy two cities to save 10, that would be his version of a trolley problem.

comment by gjm · 2015-10-01T12:27:27.149Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

It seems to me that no set of preferences that can be specified very simply without appeal to human-level concepts is going to be close enough to what we call "good" to deserve that name.

a consequentialist deity is fully entitled to destroy two cities to save 10

I entirely agree, but I don't see how this makes a substantial fraction of the arguments for atheism unravel; in particular, most thoughtful statements of the argument from evil say not "bad things happen, therefore no god" but "bad things happen without any sign that they are necessary to enable outweighing gains, therefore probably no god".

comment by Lumifer · 2015-10-01T14:23:16.091Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

a consequentialist deity is fully entitled to destroy two cities to save 10

Not if the deity is omnipotent.

comment by TheAncientGeek · 2015-10-02T12:04:02.454Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

That's debatable, at which point it is no longer a slam dunk.

comment by VoiceOfRa · 2015-10-01T03:42:00.440Z · score: -2 (6 votes) · LW · GW

"Human-level" concepts like "mercy" and "adultery" and "benevolence" and "cowardice" feel simple to us

They can be derived from simple game theory as applied to humans.

comment by gjm · 2015-10-01T12:23:30.099Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I'm not entirely convinced, but in any case even "human" is a really complicated concept.

comment by VoiceOfRa · 2015-10-02T01:07:59.117Z · score: -3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

I'm not entirely convinced, but in any case even "human" is a really complicated concept.

I guess that means humans don't exist. Oh, wait.

comment by tut · 2015-10-02T11:10:18.175Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

No, but it does mean that if you want to argue that humans exist you must provide strong positive evidence, perhaps telling us an address where we can meet a real live human ;)

comment by Transfuturist · 2015-10-04T05:24:54.890Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I could stand to meet a real-life human. I've heard they exist, but I've had such a hard time finding one!

comment by gjm · 2015-10-02T16:57:50.551Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

No idea where you get that from. Theories don't get a complexity penalty for the complexity of things that appear in universes governed by the theories, but for the complexity of their assumptions. If you have an explanation of the universe that has "there is a good god" as a postulate, then whatever complexity is hidden in the words "good" and "god" counts against that explanation.

comment by VoiceOfRa · 2015-10-02T23:04:42.301Z · score: -1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Yes, and God would care about game theory concepts and apply them to whatever being exist.

comment by gjm · 2015-10-03T01:39:02.760Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

If I'm correctly understanding what you're claiming, it's something like this: "One can postulate a supremely good being without needing human-level concepts that turn out to be really high-complexity, by defining 'good' in very general game-theoretic terms". (And, I assume from the context in which you're making the claims: "... And this salvages the project, mentioned above by CCC, of postulating God as an explanation for the world we see, the idea being that ultimately the details of physical law follow from God's commitment to making the best possible world or something of the kind".)

I'm very pessimistic about the prospects for defining "good" in abstract game-theoretic terms with enough precision to carry out any project like this. You'd need your definition to pick out what parts of the world are to count as agents that can be involved in game-like interactions, and to identify what their preferences are, and to identify what counts as a move in each game, and so forth. That seems really difficult (and high-complexity) to me, whether you focus on identifying human agents or whether you try to do something much more general. Evidently you think otherwise. Could you explain why?

(I'll mention two specific difficulties I anticipate if you're aiming for simplicity through generality. First: how do you avoid identifying everything as an agent and everything that happens as an action? Second: if the notion of goodness that emerges from this is to resemble ours enough for the word "good" actually to be appropriate, it will have to give different weight to different agents's interests -- humans should matter more than ducks, etc. How will it do that?)

comment by TheAncientGeek · 2015-10-05T09:54:38.038Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I'm very pessimistic about the prospects for defining "good" in abstract game-theoretic terms with enough precision to carry out any project like this. You'd need your definition to pick out what parts of the world are to count as agents that can be involved in game-like interactions, and to identify what their preferences are, and to identify what counts as a move in each game, and so forth. That seems really difficult (and high-complexity) to me, whether you focus on identifying human agents or whether you try to do something much more general. Evidently you think otherwise. Could you explain why?

So it would be difficult for a fintie being that is figuring out some facts that it doesn't already know on the basis of other facts that it does know. Now..how about an omniscient being?

comment by gjm · 2015-10-05T13:03:19.377Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I think you may be misunderstanding what the relevance of the "difficulty" is here.

The context is the following question:

  • If we are comparing explanations for the universe on the basis of hypothesis-complexity (e.g., because we are using something like a Solomonoff prior), what complexity should we estimate for notions like "good"?

If some notion like "perfectly benevolent being of unlimited power" turns out to have very low complexity, so much the better for theistic explanations of the universe. If it turns out to have very high complexity, so much the worse for such explanations.

(Of course that isn't the only relevant question. We also need to estimate how likely a universe like ours is on any given hypothesis. But right now it's the complexity we're looking at.)

In answering this question, it's completely irrelevant how good some hypothetical omniscient being might be at figuring out what parts of the world count as "agents" and what their preferences are and so on, even though ultimately hypothetical omniscient beings are what we're interested in. The atheistic argument here isn't "It's unlikely that the world was created by a god who wants to satisfy the preferences of agents in it, because identifying those agents and their preferences would be really difficult even for a god" (to which your question would be an entirely appropriate rejoinder). It's something quite different: "It's not a good explanation for the universe to say that it was created by a god who wants to satisfy the preferences of agents in it, because that's a very complex hypothesis, because the notions of 'agent' and 'preferences' don't correspond to simple computer programs".

(Of course this argument will only be convincing to someone who is on board with the general project of assessing hypotheses according to their complexity as defined in terms of computer programs or something roughly equivalent, and who agrees with the claim that human-level notions like 'agent' and 'preference' are much harder to write programs for than physics-level ones like 'electron'. Actually formalizing all this stuff seems like a very big challenge, but I remark that in principle -- if execution time and computer memory are no object -- we basically already know how to write a program that implements physics-so-far-as-we-understand-it, but we seem to be some way from writing one that implements anything much like morality-as-we-understand-it.)

comment by TheAncientGeek · 2015-10-06T13:56:46.498Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

It's not surprising that one particular parsimony principle can be used to overturn one particular form of theism. After all, most theists disagree with most theisms...and most believres in a Weird Science hypothesis (MUH, Matrix, etcv ) don't believe in the others.

The question is: where is the slam dunk against theism..the one that works against all forms of theism, that works only against theism , and not against similar scientific ideas like Matrix Lords, and works against the strongest arguments for theism, not just biblically literalist creationist protestant Christianity, and doesn't rest on cherry-picking particular parisimony principles?

There are multiple principles of parsimony, multiple Occam's razors.

Some focus on ontology, on the multiplication of entities, as in the original razor others on epistemology the multiplication of assumptions. The Kolmogorov complexity measure is more alligned to the latter.

Smaller universes are favoured by the ontological razor,but disfavoured by the Epistemological razor, because they are more arbitrary. Maximally large universes can have low epistemic complexity (because you have to add information specifying hwat has been left out to arrive at smaller universs), and low K. complexity (because short programmes can generate infinite bitstrings, eg an expansion of pi).

we basically already know how to write a program that implements physics-so-far-as-we-understand-it, but we seem to be some way from writing one that implements anything much like morality-as-we-understand-it.

Morality as we know it evolved from physics plus starting conditions. When you say that physics is soluble but morality isn't, I suppose you mean that the starting conditions are absent.

comment by tailcalled · 2015-10-06T17:33:44.496Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Morality as we know it evolved from physics plus starting conditions. When you say that physics is soluble but morality isn't, I suppose you mean that the starting conditions are absent.

You need to know not just the starting conditions, but also the position where morality evolves. That position can theoretically have huge complexity.

comment by gjm · 2015-10-06T16:37:54.111Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

multiple Occam's razors

Well, obviously we should pick the simplest one :-).

Seriously: I wouldn't particularly expect there to be a single all-purpose slam dunk against all varieties of theism. Different varieties of theism are, well, very different. (Even within, say, protestant Christianity, one has the fundamentalists and the super-fuzzy liberals, and since they agree on scarcely any point of fact I wouldn't expect any single argument to be effective against both positions.)

ontology [...] epistemology

I'm pretty sure that around these parts the "epistemological" sort (minimize description / program rather than size of what it describes / produces) is much, much more widely held than then "ontological" sort.

I suppose you mean that the starting conditions are absent.

That's one reasonable way of looking at it, but if the best way we can find to compute morality-as-we-understand-it is to run a complete physical simulation of our universe then the outlook doesn't look good for the project of finding a simpler-than-naturalism explanation of our universe based on the idea that it's the creation of a supremely good being.

comment by hairyfigment · 2015-10-06T20:07:46.081Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I'm pretty sure that around these parts the "epistemological" sort (minimize description / program rather than size of what it describes / produces) is much, much more widely held than then "ontological" sort.

So you don't think we're mostly solipsists? :)

comment by VoiceOfRa · 2015-10-03T05:24:38.041Z · score: -3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

That seems really difficult (and high-complexity) to me, whether you focus on identifying human agents or whether you try to do something much more general. Evidently you think otherwise.

This is motivated stopping. You don't want to admit any evidence for theism so you declare the problem impossible instead of thinking about it for 10 seconds.

Here are some hints: If you were dropped into an alien planet or even an alien universe you would have no trouble identifying the most agenty things.

You'd need your definition to pick out what parts of the world are to count as agents that can be involved in game-like interactions,

Well there you go, agents are things that can be involved in game-like interactions.

comment by gjm · 2015-10-03T09:18:56.223Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

[...] motivated [...] don't want [...] instead of thinking about it

This is the third time in the last few weeks that you have impugned my integrity on what seems to me to be zero evidence. I do wish you would at least justify such claims when you make them. (When I have asked you to do so in the past you have simply ignored the requests.)

Would it kill you to entertain some other hypotheses -- e.g., "the other guy is simply failing to notice something I have noticed" and "I am simply failing to notice something the other guy has noticed"? Perhaps it would; your consistent strategy of downvoting everyone who disagrees with you doesn't exactly suggest that you're here for a collaborative search for truth as opposed to fighting a war with arguments as soldiers.

[EDITED to add: I didn't, in fact, declare anything impossible; and before declaring it very difficult I did in fact think about it for more than ten seconds. I see little evidence that you've given as much thought to anything I've said in this discussion.]

you would have no trouble

I have agent-identifying hardware in my brain. It is, I think, quite complicated. I don't know how to make a computer identify agents, and so far as I know no one else does either. The best automated things I know of for tasks remotely resembling agent-identification are today's state-of-the-art image classifiers, which typically involve large mysterious piles of neural network weights, which surely count as high-complexity if anything does.

agents are things that can be involved in game-like interactions

Identifying game-like interactions is also (so far as I can tell) a problem no one has any inkling how to solve, especially if we don't have the prior ability to identify the agents.

comment by VoiceOfRa · 2015-10-04T03:03:35.711Z · score: -3 (7 votes) · LW · GW

Perhaps it would; your consistent strategy of downvoting everyone who disagrees with you

No, but I do downvote people who appear to be completely mind-killed.

Identifying game-like interactions is also (so far as I can tell) a problem no one has any inkling how to solve, especially if we don't have the prior ability to identify the agents.

Rather, identifying agents using algorithms with reasonable running time is a hard problem.

Also, consider the following relatively uncontroversial beliefs around here:

1) The universe has low Kolmogorov complexity.

2) An AGI is likely to be developed and when it does it'll take over the universe.

Now let's consider some implications of these beliefs:

3) An AGI has low Kolmogorov complexity since it can be specified as "run this low Kolmogorov complexity universe for a sufficiently long period of time".

Also the AGI to be successful is going to have to be good at detecting agents so it can dedicated sufficient resources to defeating/subverting them. Thus detecting agents must have low Kolmogorov complexity.

comment by gjm · 2015-10-04T11:19:28.536Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I do downvote people who appear to be completely mind-killed

I think your mindkill detection algorithms need some tuning; they have both false positives and false negatives.

Rather [...] with reasonable running time

I know of no credible way to do it with unreasonable running time either. (Unless you count saying "AIXI can solve any solvable problem, in principle, so use AIXI", but I see no reason to think that this leads you to a solution with low Kolmogorov complexity.)

I don't think your argument from superintelligent AI works; exactly where it fails depends on some details you haven't specified, but the trouble is some combination of the following.

  • For your first premise to be uncontroversial around here, I think you need to either take it as applying only to the form of the laws of physics and not to initial conditions, arbitrary constants, etc. (in which case you can't identify "this universe" and still have it be of low complexity) or adopt something like Tegmark's MUH that amounts to running every version of the universe (all boundary conditions, all values for the constants, etc.) in parallel (in which case what gets taken over by a superintelligent AI is no longer the whole thing but a possibly-tiny part, and specifying that part costs a lot of complexity).
  • You need to say where in the universe the AGI is, which imposes a large complexity cost -- unless ...
  • ... unless you are depending on it taking over the whole universe so that you can just point at the whole caboodle and say "that thing" -- but then presumably its agent-detection facilities are a tiny part of the whole (not necessarily a spatially localized part, of course), and singling those out so you can say "agents are things that that identifies as agents" again has a large complexity cost from locating them.
comment by VoiceOfRa · 2015-10-05T02:44:10.702Z · score: -3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

For your first premise to be uncontroversial around here, I think you need to either take it as applying only to the form of the laws of physics and not to initial conditions, arbitrary constants, etc. (in which case you can't identify "this universe" and still have it be of low complexity)

Doesn't that undermine the premise of the whole "a godless universe has low Kolmogorov complexity" argument that you're trying to make?

adopt something like Tegmark's MUH that amounts to running every version of the universe (all boundary conditions, all values for the constants, etc.) in parallel (in which case what gets taken over by a superintelligent AI is no longer the whole thing but a possibly-tiny part, and specifying that part costs a lot of complexity).

Well, all the universes that support can life are likely wind up taken over by AGI's.

unless you are depending on it taking over the whole universe so that you can just point at the whole caboodle and say "that thing" -- but then presumably its agent-detection facilities are a tiny part of the whole (not necessarily a spatially localized part, of course), and singling those out so you can say "agents are things that that identifies as agents" again has a large complexity cost from locating them.

But, the AGI can. Agentiness is going to be a very important concept for it. Thus it's likely to have a short referent to it.

comment by Transfuturist · 2015-10-05T04:18:39.299Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Doesn't that undermine the premise of the whole "a godless universe has low Kolmogorov complexity" argument that you're trying to make?

Again, there is a difference between the complexity of the dynamics defining state transitions, and the complexity of the states themselves.

But, the AGI can. Agentiness is going to be a very important concept for it. Thus it's likely to have a short referent to it.

What do you mean by "short referent?" Yes, it will likely be an often-used concept, so the internal symbol signifying the concept is likely to be short, but that says absolutely nothing about the complexity of the concept itself. If you want to say that "agentiness" is a K-simple concept, perhaps you should demonstrate that by explicating a precise computational definition for an agent detector, and show that it doesn't fail on any conceivable edge-cases.

Saying that it's important doesn't mean it's simple. "For an AGI to be successful it is going to have to be good at reducing entropy globally. Thus reducing entropy globally must have low Kolmogorov complexity."

comment by VoiceOfRa · 2015-10-06T00:58:11.291Z · score: -2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Saying that it's important doesn't mean it's simple.

You're confusing the intuitive notion of "simple" with "low Kolmogorov complexity". For example, the Mandelbrot set is "complicated" in the intuitive sense, but has low Kolmogorov complexity since it can be constructed by a simple process.

What do you mean by "short referent?" Yes, it will likely be an often-used concept, so the internal symbol signifying the concept is likely to be short, but that says absolutely nothing about the complexity of the concept itself.

It does if you look at the rest of my argument.

If you want to say that "agentiness" is a K-simple concept, perhaps you should demonstrate that by explicating a precise computational definition for an agent detector,

Step 1: Stimulation the universe for a sufficiently long time.

Step 2: Ask the entity now filling up the universe "is this an agent?".

Thus reducing entropy globally must have low Kolmogorov complexity.

What do you mean by that statement? Kolmogorov complexity is a property of a concept. Well "reducing entropy" as a concept does have low Kolmogorov complexity.

comment by Transfuturist · 2015-10-06T01:32:34.211Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

You're confusing the intuitive notion of "simple" with "low Kolmogorov complexity"

I am using the word "simple" to refer to "low K-complexity." That is the context of this discussion.

It does if you look at the rest of my argument.

The rest of your argument is fundamentally misinformed.

Step 1: Stimulation the universe for a sufficiently long time.

Step 2: Ask the entity now filling up the universe "is this an agent?".

Simulating the universe to identify an agent is the exact opposite of a short referent. Anyway, even if simulating a universe were tractable, it does not provide a low complexity for identifying agents in the first place. Once you're done specifying all of and only the universes where filling all of space with computronium is both possible and optimal, all of and only the initial conditions in which an AGI will fill the universe with computronium, and all of and only the states of those universes where they are actually filled with computronium, you are then left with the concept of universe-filling AGIs, not agents.

You seem to be attempting to say that a descriptor of agents would be simple because the physics of our universe is simple. Again, the complexity of the transition function and the complexity of the configuration states are different. If you do not understand this, then everything that follows from this is bad argumentation.

What do you mean by that statement? Kolmogorov complexity is a property of a concept. Well "reducing entropy" as a concept does have low Kolmogorov complexity.

It is framed after your own argument, as you must be aware. Forgive me, for I too closely patterned it after your own writing. "For an AGI to be successful it is going to have to be good at reducing entropy globally. Thus reducing entropy globally must be possible." That is false, just as your own argument for a K-simple general agent specification is false. It is perfectly possible that an AGI will not need to be good at recognizing agents to be successful, or that an AGI that can recognize agents generally is not possible. To show that it is, you have to give a simple algorithm, which your universe-filling algorithm is not.

comment by gjm · 2015-10-05T09:31:09.159Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

the whole "a godless universe has low Kolmogorov complexity" argument that you're trying to make.

It might, perhaps, if I were actually trying to make that argument. But so far as I can see no one is claiming here that the universe has low komplexity. (All the atheistic argument needs is for the godless version of the universe to have lower komplexity than the godded one.)

all the universes that can support life are likely to wind up taken over by AGIs.

Even if so, you still have the locate-the-relevant-bit problem. (Even if you can just say "pick any universe", you have to find the relevant bit within that universe.) It's also not clear to me that locating universes suitable for life within something like the Tegmark multiverse is low-komplexity.

the AGI can. [...] it's likely to have a short referent to it.

An easy-to-use one, perhaps, but I see no guarantee that it'll be something easy to identify for others, which is what's relevant.

Consider humans; we're surely much simpler than a universe-spanning AGI (and also more likely to have a concept that nicely matches the human concept of "agent"; perhaps a universe-spanning AGI would instead have some elaborate range of "agent"-like concepts making fine distinctions we don't see or don't appreciate; but never mind that). Could you specify how to tell, using a human brain, whether something is an agent? (Recall that for komplexity-measuring purposes, if you do so by means of language or something then the komplexity of that language is part of the cost you pay. In fact, it's worse; you need to specify how to work out that language by looking at human brains. Similarly, if you want to say "look at the neurons located here", the thing you need to pay the komplexity-cost of is not just specifying "here" but specifying how to find "here" in a way that works for any possible human-like thing.)

comment by Transfuturist · 2015-10-05T15:05:30.358Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Krusty's Komplexity Kalkulator!

comment by gjm · 2015-10-05T16:26:17.732Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Kolmogorov's, which is of course the actual reason for my initial "k"s.

comment by Transfuturist · 2015-10-05T19:47:12.080Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

It reminded me of reading Simpsons comics, is all.

comment by VoiceOfRa · 2015-10-06T01:05:51.254Z · score: -3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Even if so, you still have the locate-the-relevant-bit problem.

What part of "universe taken over by AGI" is causing your reading comprehension to fail?

It's also not clear to me that locating universes suitable for life within something like the Tegmark multiverse is low-komplexity.

You haven't played with cellular automata much, have you?

Could you specify how to tell, using a human brain, whether something is an agent?

Ask it.

Recall that for komplexity-measuring purposes, if you do so by means of language or something then the komplexity of that language is part of the cost you pay.

The cost of specifying a language is the cost of specifying the entity that can decode it, and we've already established that a universe spanning AGI has low Kolmogorov complexity.

comment by gjm · 2015-10-06T01:38:12.316Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

What part of "universe taken over by AGI" is causing your reading comprehension to fail?

No part. I already explained why I don't think "universe taken over by AGI" implies "no need for lots of bits to locate what we need within the universe"; I really shouldn't have to do so again two comments downthread.

You haven't played with cellular automata much, have you?

Fair comment (though, as ever, needlessly obnoxiously expressed); I agree that there are low-komplexity things that surely contain powerful intelligences. But now take a step back and look at what you're arguing. I paraphrase thus: "A large instance of Conway's Life, seeded pseudorandomly, will surely end up taken over by a powerful AI. A powerful AI will be good at identifying agents and their preferences. Therefore the notions of agent and preference are low-komplexity." Is it not obvious that you're proving too much on the basis of too little here, and therefore that something must have gone wrong? I mean, if this argument worked it would appear to obliterate differences in komplexity between any two concepts we might care about, because our hypothetical super-powerful Life AI should also be good at identifying any other kind of pattern.

I've already indicated one important thing that I think has gone wrong: saying how to use whatever (doubtless terribly complicated) AI may emerge from running "Life" on a board of size 10^100 for 10^200 ticks to identify agents may require a great many bits. I think I see a number of other problems, but it's 2.30am local time so I'll leave you to look for them, if you choose to do so.

The cost of specifying a language is the cost of specifying the entity that can decode it

No. It is the cost of specifying that entity and indicating somehow that it is to decode that language rather than some other.

Let's make this a little more concrete. You are claiming that the likely emergence of universe-spanning AGIs able to detect agency means that the notion of "agent" has low komplexity. Could you please sketch what a short program for identifying agents would look like? I gather that it begins with something like "Make a size-10^100 Life instance, seeded according to such-and-such a rule, and run it for 10^200 ticks", which I agree is low-komplexity. But then what? How, in genuinely low-komplexity terms, are you then going to query this thing so as to identify agents in our universe?

I am not expecting you to actually write the program, of course. But you seem sure that it can be done and doesn't need many bits, so you surely ought to be able to outline how it would work in general terms, without any points where you have to say "and then a miracle happens".

comment by VoiceOfRa · 2015-10-07T04:14:55.001Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Could you please sketch what a short program for identifying agents would look like? I gather that it begins with something like "Make a size-10^100 Life instance, seeded according to such-and-such a rule, and run it for 10^200 ticks", which I agree is low-komplexity. But then what? How, in genuinely low-komplexity terms, are you then going to query this thing so as to identify agents in our universe?

Hard code the question in the AI's language directly into the stimulation. (This is what is known in the computational complexity world as a non-constructive existence proof.)

comment by gjm · 2015-10-07T10:26:32.008Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

OK, so first let me check I've understood how your proposal works. I've rolled the agent-identifying bit into a rough attempt at a "make the universe a god would make" algorithm, since of course that's what we're actually after. It isn't necessarily exactly what you have in mind, but it seems like a reasonable extrapolation.

  • Make a simulated universe of size N operating according to algorithm A, initially seeded according to algorithm B, and run it for time T. (Call the result U.)
    • Here N and T are large and A and B are simple algorithms with the property that when we do this we end up with a superintelligent AI occupying a large fraction of U.
    • It is a presupposition of this approach that such algorithms exist.
  • Now let X be a complete description of any candidate universe. Modify U to make U(X), which is like U but has somehow incorporated whatever one needs to do in universe U to ask the superintelligent AI "In the universe described by X, to what extent do the agents it contains have their preferences satisfied?".
    • I'm assuming something like preference utilitarianism here; one could adapt the procedure for other notions of ethics.
    • It is a presupposition of this approach that there is a way to ask such a question and be confident of getting an answer within a reasonable time.
  • Run our simulation for a further time T' and decode the resulting changes in U to get an answer to our question.
  • Now our make-a-universe algorithm goes like this: Consider all possible X below some (large but fixed) complexity bound. Do the above for each. Identify the X that gives the largest answer to our question.
  • Congratulations! We have now identified the Best Possible World. Predict that whatever happens in the Best Possible World is what actually happens.

And now -- if in fact this is the best of all possible worlds -- we have an algorithm that predicts everything, and doesn't need any particular (perhaps-complex) laws of physics built into it. In which case, the simplest explanation for our world is that it is the best possible world and was made with that as desideratum.

So, first of all: Yes, I kinda-agree that something kinda like this could in principle kinda work, and that if it did we would have good reason to believe in a god or something like one, and that this shows that there are kinda-conceivable worlds, perhaps even rather complex ones, in which belief in a god is not absurd on the basis of Kolmogorov complexity. Excellent!

None the less, I find it unconvincing even on those terms, and considerably less convincing still as an argument that our world might be such a world. I'll explain why.

(But first, a preliminary note. I have used the same superintelligent AI for agent-identification and universe-assessment. We don't have to do that; we could use different ones for those two problems or something. I don't see any particular advantage to doing so, but it was only the agent-identification problem that we were specifically discussing and for all I know you may have some completely different approach in mind for the universe-assessment. If so, some of what follows may miss the mark.)

First, there are some technical difficulties. For instance, it's one thing to say that almost all universes (hence, hopefully, at least one very simple one) eventually contain a superintelligent AI; but it's another to say that they eventually contain a superintelligent AI that we can induce to answer arbitrary questions and understand the answers of, by simply-specifiable diddling with its universe. It could be, e.g., that AIs in very simple universes always have very complicated implementations, in which case specifying how to ask it our question might take as much complexity as specifying how our existing world works. And it seems very unlikely that a superintelligent universe-dominating AI is going to answer whatever questions we put to it just because we ask. And there's no particular reason to expect one of these things to have a language in any sense we can use. (If it's a singleton, what need has it of language?)

Second, this works only when our world is in fact best-possible according to some very specific criterion. (As described above, the algorithm fails disastrously if our world isn't exactly the best-possible world according to that criterion. We can make it more robust by making it not a make-a-universe machine but a what-happens-next machine: in any given situation it feeds a description of that to the AI and asks "what happens next, to maximize agents' preference satisfaction?". Or maybe it iterates over possible worlds again, looks only at those that at some point closely resemble the situation whose sequel it's trying to predict, and chooses the one of those for which the AI gives the best rating. These both have problems of their own, and this comment is too long as it is so I won't expand on them here. Let's just suppose that we do somehow at least manage to make something that makes not-completely-absurd predictions about whatever situations we may encounter in the real world, using techniques closely resembling the above.)

Anyway: the point here is twofold. Even supposing our universe is best-possible according to some god's preferences, there is no particular reason to think that the simplest superintelligent AI we find will have the exact same preferences, and predictions for what happens may well depend in a very sensitive and fiddly manner on exactly what preferences the god in question has. I see absolutely no reason to think that specifying those preferences accurately enough to enable prediction doesn't require as many bits as just describing our physical universe does. And: in any case our universe looks so hilariously unlike a world that's best-possible according to any simple criterion (unless the criterion is, e.g., "follows the actual world's laws of physics) that this whole exercise seems to have little chance of producing good predictions of our world.

comment by Transfuturist · 2015-10-04T05:51:34.397Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

An AGI has low Kolmogorov complexity since it can be specified as "run this low Kolmogorov complexity universe for a sufficiently long period of time".

That's a fundamental misunderstanding of complexity. The laws of physics are simple, but the configurations of the universe that runs on it can be incredibly complex. The amount of information needed to specify the configuration of any single cubic centimeter of space is literally unfathomable to human minds. Running a simulation of the universe until intelligences develop inside of it is not the same as specifying those intelligences, or intelligence in general.

Also the AGI to be successful is going to have to be good at detecting agents so it can dedicated sufficient resources to defeating/subverting them. Thus detecting agents must have low Kolmogorov complexity.

The convenience of some hypothetical property of intelligence does not act as a proof of that property. Please note that we are in a highly specific environment, where humans are the only sapients around, and animals are the only immediately recognizable agents. There are sci-fi stories about your "necessary" condition being exactly false; where humans do not recognize some intelligence because it is not structured in a way that humans are capable of recognizing.

comment by hairyfigment · 2015-10-04T07:00:40.896Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Not sure anyone is dumb enough to think the visible universe has low Kolmogorov complexity. That's actually kind of the reason why we keep talking about a universal wavefunction, and even larger Big Worlds, none of which an AGI could plausibly control.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-10-04T15:25:45.325Z · score: 0 (4 votes) · LW · GW

The Second Law of Thermodynamics causes the Kolmogorov complexity of the universe to increase over time. What you've actually constructed is an argument against being able to simulate the universe in full fidelity.

comment by IlyaShpitser · 2015-10-05T02:42:48.436Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

This is not right, K(.) is a function that applies to computable objects. It either does not apply to our Universe, or is a constant if it does (this constant would "price the temporal evolution in").

comment by [deleted] · 2015-10-05T03:46:48.116Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I sincerely don't think it works that way. Consider the usual relationship between Shannon entropy and Kolmogorov complexity: H(x) \proportional E[K(x)]. We know that the Gibbs, and thus Shannon, entropy of the universe is nondecreasing, and that thus means that the distribution over universe-states is getting more concentrated on more complex states over time. So the Kolmogorov complexity of the universe, viewed at a given instant in time but from a "god's eye view", is going up.

You could try to calculate the maximum possible entropy in the universe and "price that in" as a constant, but I think that dodges the point in the same way as AIXI_{tl} does by using an astronomically large "constant factor". You're just plain missing information if you try to simulate the universe from its birth to its death from within the universe. At some point, your simulation won't be identical to the real universe anymore, it'll diverge from reality because you're not updating it with additional empirical data (or rather, because you never updated it with any empirical data).

Hmmm... is there an extension of Kolmogorov complexity defined to describe the information content of probabilistic Turing machines (which make random choices) instead of deterministic ones? I think that would better help describe what we mean by "complexity of the universe".

comment by IlyaShpitser · 2015-10-10T18:29:46.922Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

H(x) \proportional E[K(x)]

What does this mean? What is the expectation taken with respect to? I can construct an example where the above is false. Let x1 be the first n bits of Chaitin's omega, x2 be the (n+1)th, ..., 2nth bits of Chaitin's omega. Let X be a random variable which takes the value x1 with probability 0.5 and the value x2 with probability 0.5. Then E[K(X)] = 0.5 O(n) + 0.5 O(n) = O(n), but H(X) = 1.


edit: Oh, I see, this is a result on non-adversarial sample spaces, e.g. {0,1}^n, in Li and Vitanyi.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-10-12T02:27:48.860Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

edit: Oh, I see, this is a result on non-adversarial sample spaces, e.g. {0,1}^n, in Li and Vitanyi.

Yep. I should have gone and cited it, actually.

comment by 50lbsofstorkmeat · 2015-10-05T04:22:24.509Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

This is not and can not be true. I mean, for one the universe doesn't have a Kolmogorov complexity*. But more importantly, a hypothesis is not penalized for having entropy increase over time as long as the increases in entropy arise from deterministic, entropy-increasing interactions specified in advance. Just as atomic theory isn't penalized for having lots of distinct objects, thermodynamics is not penalized for having seemingly random outputs which are secretly guided by underlying physical laws.

*If you do not see why this is true, consider that there can be multiple hypothesis which would output the same state in their resulting universes. An obvious example would be one which specifies our laws of physics and another which specifies the position of every atom without compression in the form of physical law.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-10-06T23:05:43.660Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

*If you do not see why this is true, consider that there can be multiple hypothesis which would output the same state in their resulting universes. An obvious example would be one which specifies our laws of physics and another which specifies the position of every atom without compression in the form of physical law.

This is exactly the sort of thing for which Kolmogorov complexity exists: to specify the length of the shortest hypothesis which outputs the correct result.

Just as atomic theory isn't penalized for having lots of distinct objects

Atomic theory isn't "penalized" because it has lots of distinct but repeated objects. It actually has very few things that don't repeat. Atomic theory, after all, deals with masses of atoms.

comment by VoiceOfRa · 2015-10-05T02:34:22.643Z · score: -2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

The Second Law of Thermodynamics causes the Kolmogorov complexity of the universe to increase over time. What you've actually constructed is an argument against being able to simulate the universe in full fidelity.

Um, you appear to be trying to argue that the universe has infinite Kolmogorov complexity. Well, if it does it kind of undermines the whole "we must reject God because a godless universe has lower Kolmogorov" complexity argument.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-10-05T03:35:39.970Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Um, you appear to be trying to argue that the universe has infinite Kolmogorov complexity.

Not infinite, just growing over time. This just means that it's impossible to simulate the universe with full fidelity from inside the universe, as you would need a bigger universe to do it in.

comment by Good_Burning_Plastic · 2015-10-03T10:03:42.730Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

no trouble the most agenty things

I think there a word missing there. ("trouble believing"? "trouble with"? "trouble recognizing"?)

comment by VoiceOfRa · 2015-10-04T02:47:46.619Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks, fixed.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-10-03T17:07:06.076Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

The basic theistic hypothesis is a description of an omnipotent, omniscient being; together with the probable aims and suspected intentions of such a being. The laws of physics would then derive from this.

"Omnipotent", "omniscient", and "being" are packing a whole shit-ton of complexity, especially "being". They're definitely packing more than a model of particle physics, since we know that all known "beings" are implemented on top of particle physics.

comment by Transfuturist · 2015-10-04T05:18:43.194Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I don't think mind designs are dependent on their underlying physics. The physics is a substrate, and as long as it provides general computation, intelligence would be achievable in a configuration of that physics. The specifics of those designs may depend on how those worlds function, like how jellyfish-like minds may be different from bird-like minds, but not the common elements of induction, analysis of inputs, and selection of outputs. That would mean the simplest a priori mind would have to be computed by the simplest provision of general computation, however. An infinitely divine Turing Machine, if you will.

That doesn't mean a mind is more basic than physics, though. That's an entirely separate issue. I haven't ever seen a coherent model of God in the first place, so I couldn't begin to judge the complexity of its unproposed existence. If God is a mind, then what substrate does it rest on?

comment by CCC · 2015-10-05T08:50:48.784Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

We don't know that beings require particle physics - if the only animal I've ever seen is a dog, that is not proof that zebras don't exist.

I'm not saying that there isn't complexity in the word "being", just that I'm not convinced that your argument in favour of there being more complexity than particle physics is good.

comment by entirelyuseless · 2015-10-03T17:33:41.010Z · score: -2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

"Being" surely does not have more complexity than particle physics. Particles are already beings.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-10-04T03:16:02.427Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

"Being" in the sense of intelligent mind sure as hell does. Particles are not beings in that sense of the word, and that's the common sense.

comment by 50lbsofstorkmeat · 2015-09-30T14:42:30.871Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Kolmogorov complexity is, in essence, "How many bits do you need to specify an algorithm which will output the predictions of your hypothesis?" A hypothesis which gives a universally applicable formula is of lower complexity than one which specifies each prediction individually. More simple formulas are of lower complexity than more complex formulas. And so on and so forth.

The source of the high Kolmogorov complexity for the theistic hypothesis is God's intelligence. Any religious theory which involves the laws of physics arising from God has to specify the nature of that God as an algorithm which specifies God's actions in every situation with mathematical precision and without reference to any physical law which would (under this theory) later arise from God. As you can imagine, doing so would take very, very many bits to do successfully. This leads to very high complexity as a result.

comment by CCC · 2015-10-05T09:21:22.665Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

If we assume that God is a free-willed agent, then that might even be impossible in a finite number of bits...

comment by 50lbsofstorkmeat · 2015-10-05T20:03:43.475Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

The number of bits required to specify an agent with free will (insofar as free will is a meaningful term when discussing a deterministic universe) is definitely finite. Very large, but finite. Which is a good thing, since Kolmogorov priors specify a prior of 0 for a hypothesis with infinite complexity and assigning a prior of 0 to a hypothesis is a Bad Thing for a variety of reasons.

comment by Lumifer · 2015-10-05T20:19:30.833Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

The number of bits required to specify an agent with free will

I don't understand the concept of specifying (in bits) an agent with free will.

comment by 50lbsofstorkmeat · 2015-10-07T00:42:35.287Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

The length (in bits for a program in a universal Turing machine) of the smallest algorithm which will output the same outputs as the agent if the agent were given the same inputs as the algorithm.

Do note that I said "insofar as free will is a meaningful term when discussing a deterministic universe". Many definitions of free will are defined around being non-deterministic, or non-computable. Obviously you couldn't write a deterministic computer program which has those properties. But there are reasons presented on this site to think that once you pare down the definition to the basic essentials of what is really meant and stop being confused by the language used to traditionally describe free will, that you should in principle be able to have a deterministic agent who does, in fact, have free will for all meaningful purposes.

comment by Lumifer · 2015-10-07T14:56:56.909Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

once you pare down the definition to the basic essentials of what is really meant and stop being confused by the language used to traditionally describe free will, that you should in principle be able to have a deterministic agent who does, in fact, have free will for all meaningful purposes.

I don't read it this way. The approach you linked to basically says that free will does not exist and is just a concept humans came up with to confuse themselves. If you accept this, then you should not use the "free will" terminology at all because there is no point to it. So I still don't understand that concept.

comment by 50lbsofstorkmeat · 2015-10-08T05:16:49.114Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Exactly so.

The only reason I'm using the free will terminology at all here is because the hypothesis under consideration (an entity with free will which resembles the Abrahamic God is responsible for the creation of our universe) was phrased in those terms. In order to evaluate the plausibility of that claim, we need a working definition of free will which is amiable to being a property of an algorithm rather than only applying to agents-in-abstract. I see no conflict between the basic notion of a divinely created universe and the framework for free will provided in the article hairyfigment links. One can easily imagine God deciding to make a universe, contemplating possible universes which They could create, using Their Godly foresight to determine what would happen in each universe and then ultimately deciding that the one we're in is the universe They would most prefer to create. There's many steps there, and many possible points of failure, but it is a hypothesis which you could, in principle, assign an objective Solomonoff prior to.

(Note: This post should not be taken as saying that the theistic hypothesis is true. Only that its likelihood can successfully be evaluated. I know it is tempting to take arguments of the form "God is a hypothesis which can be considered" to mean "God should be considered" or even "God is real" due to arguments being foot soldiers and it being really tempting to decry religion as not even coherent enough to parse successfully.)

comment by Lumifer · 2015-10-08T14:39:28.163Z · score: -2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

its likelihood can successfully be evaluated

Would you care to demonstrate? Preferably starting with explaining how the Solomonoff prior is relevant (note that a major point in theologies of all Abrahamic religions is that God is radically different from everything else (=universe)).

comment by 50lbsofstorkmeat · 2015-10-08T16:17:54.057Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

No, I would not care to demonstrate. A proof that a solution exists is not the same thing as a procedure for obtaining a solution. And this isn't even a formal proof: it's a rough sketch of how you'd go about constructing one, informally posted in a blog's comment section as part of a pointless and unpleasant discussion of religion.

If you can't follow how "It is possible-in-principle to calculate a Solomonoff prior for this hypothesis" relates to "We are dismissive of this hypothesis because it has high complexity and little evidence supporting it." I honestly can't help. This is all very technical and I don't know what you already know, so I have no idea what explanation would be helpful to close that inferential distance. And the comments section of a blog really isn't the best format. And I'm certainly not the best person to teach about this topic.

comment by Lumifer · 2015-10-08T19:34:56.979Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Sure, that's fine.

comment by hairyfigment · 2015-10-07T17:23:38.394Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

And yet here we have someone talking about "free will" as if it meant something, and CCC's usage seems entirely consistent with the meaning described here. (The link is a spoiler for the questions linked in the grandparent, but I've already tried to direct CCC's attention to the computable kind of "free will" in the hope of clarifying the discussion. That user claimed to have read a large part of the Sequences.)

comment by CCC · 2015-10-06T09:13:02.973Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

The number of bits required to specify an agent with free will (insofar as free will is a meaningful term when discussing a deterministic universe) is definitely finite. Very large, but finite.

...could you elaborate on this point a bit more? I'd really like to know how you prove that.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-10-03T17:09:22.765Z · score: -4 (8 votes) · LW · GW

Ok, everyone. LessWrong has now descended to actually arguing over the Kolmogorov complexity of the Christian God, as if this was a serious question. The Slate Star Codex readers demanding "charity" for this, that, and everything else have taken over.

LessWrong is now officially a branch of /r/philosophy. The site is dead, and everyone who actually wanted LessWrongian things can now migrate somewhere else.

Of blessed memory, 2008-2015.

comment by Transfuturist · 2015-10-04T04:59:35.523Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Two or three people confused about K-complexity doesn't herald the death of LW.

comment by Kawoomba · 2015-10-03T18:26:57.395Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

LessWrong has now descended to actually arguing over the Kolmogorov complexity of the Christian God, as if this was a serious question.

Well, there is a lot of motivated cognition on that topic (relevant disclaimer, I'm an atheist in the conventional sense of the word) and it seems deceptively straight forward to answer (mostly by KC-dabblers), but it is in fact anything but. The non-triviality arises from technical considerations, not some philosophical obscurantism.

This may be the wrong comment chain to get into it, and your grandstanding doesn't exactly signal an immediate willingness to engage in medias res, so I won't elaborate for the moment (unless you want me to).

comment by Transfuturist · 2015-10-04T04:52:31.566Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

The non-triviality arises from technical considerations

The laws of physics as we know them are very simple, and we believe that they may actually be even simpler. Meanwhile, a mind existing outside of physics is somehow a more consistent and simple explanation than humans having hardware in the brain that promotes hypotheses involving human-like agents behind everything, which explains away every religion ever? Minds are not simpler than physics. This is not a technical controversy.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-10-04T03:17:40.337Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Go on and elaborate, but unless you can show some very thorough technical considerations, I just don't see how you're able to claim a mind has low Kolmogorov complexity.

comment by Kawoomba · 2015-10-04T08:55:29.275Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

"Mind" is a high level concept, on a base level it is just a subset of specific physical structures. The precise arrangement of water molecules in a waterfall, over time, matches if not dwarves the KC of a mind.

That is, if you wanted to recreate precisely this or that waterfall as it precisely happened (with the orientation of each water molecule preserved with high fidelity), the strict computational complexity would be way higher than for a comparatively more ordered and static mind.

The data doesn't care what importance you ascribe to it. It's not as if, say, "power", automatically comes with "hard to describe computationally". On the contrary, allowing for a function to do arbitrary code changes is easier to implement that defining precise power limitations (see constraining an AI's utility function).

Then there's the sheer number of mind-phenomena, are you suggesting adding one by necessity increases complexity? In fact, removing one can increase it as well: If I were to describe a reality in which ceteris is paribus, with the exception of your mind not actually being a mind, then by removing a mind I would have increased overall complexity. Not even taking into account that there are plenty of mind-templates around already (implicitly, since KC, even though uncomputable, is optimal), and that for complexity considerations, adding another of a template isn't even adding much, necessarily (I'm aware that adding just a few bits already comes with a steep penalty, this comment isn't meant to be exhaustive). See also the alphabet example further on.

Then there's the illusion that somehow our universe is of low complexity just because the physical laws governing the transition between time-steps are simple. That is mistaken. If we just look at the laws, and start with a big bang that is not precisely informationally described, we get a multiverse host of possible universes with our universe not in the beginning, which goes counter the KC demands. You may say "I don't care, as long as our universe is somewhere in the output, that's fine". But then I propose an even simpler theory of everything: Output a long enough sequence of Pi, and you eventually get our universe somewhere down the line as well. So our universe's actual complexity is enourmous, down to atoms in a stone on a hill on some moon somewhere in the next galaxy. There exists a clear trade-off between explanatory power and conciseness. I used to link an old Hutter lecture on that latter topic a few years ago, I can dig it out if you'd like. (ETA: See for example the paragraph labeled "A" on page 6 in this paper of his).

The old argument that |"universe + mind"| > |"universe"| is simplistic and ill-applied. Unlike with probabilities, the sequence ABCDABCDABCDABCD can be less complex than ABCDABCDABCDABC.

The list goes on, if you want to focus on some aspect of it we can go into greater depth on that. Bottom line is, if there's a slam dunk case, I don't see it.

comment by TheAncientGeek · 2015-10-03T17:19:14.509Z · score: -3 (7 votes) · LW · GW

Because rationality isn't about following reason where it takes you, it's about sticking as dogmatically as possible to the 39 articles of lwrationality as laid down in the seq-tures.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-10-04T03:18:12.405Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Rationality is indeed about following reason where it takes you. This is very different from following wherever someone would have their feelings hurt if you didn't go. Of course, rationality also involves the use of priors, evidence, and accumulated information over your entire lifetime. You are not merely allowed but required to assign a very low prior, in the range of "bloody ridiculous", to propositions which contradict all your available information, or require some massively complex rationalization to be compatible with all your available information.

comment by TheAncientGeek · 2015-10-04T09:48:55.525Z · score: 0 (6 votes) · LW · GW

his is very different from following wherever someone would have their feelings hurt if you didn't go.

What did you have in mind specifically?

Of course, rationality also involves the use of priors, evidence, and accumulated information over your entire lifetime.

Rationality also involves paradigm shifts, revolutions and inversions. "Use priors" is not, should not be, a call for fundamental conservatism.

You are not merely allowed but required to assign a very low prior, in the range of "bloody ridiculous", to propositions which contradict all your available information, or require some massively complex rationalization to be compatible with all your available information.

One person's complex rationalisation is another's paradigm shift.

Evolution, relativity and quantum physics are paradigm shifts. Some people still aren't aboard with some of them, finding them against "logic", "reason", "common sense", etc. The self-professed rationalist Ayn Rand rejected all three: do you want to be another Ayn Rand?

The conservative incremental paradigm, applied retroactivley, would lead lwrationalists to reject good science. So they kind of don't believe in it as the only paradigm. But they also kind of do, since it is the only paradigm they use when discussing theology., or other things they don't like.

comment by Viliam · 2015-10-04T19:34:14.970Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Evolution, relativity and quantum physics are paradigm shifts.

Not sure what "paradigm shift" is supposed to mean, but it sounds to me like "nobody had the slightest suspicion, then came a prophet, told something completely unexpected, and everyone's mind was blown". Well, if it is supposed to be anything like that, then evolution and relativity are poor examples (not completely sure about quantum physics).

With evolution, people already had millenia of experience with breeding. Darwin's new idea was, essentially: "if human breeders can achieve some changes by selecting individuals with certain traits... couldn't the forces of nature, by automatically selecting individuals who have a greater chance to survive or a greater chance to reproduce, have ultimately a similar effect on the species?"

With relativity, people already had many equations, already did the experiments that disproved the aether, etc. A large part of the puzzle was already known, Einstein "only" had to connect a few pieces together in a creative way. And then it was experimentally tested and confirmed.

comment by TheAncientGeek · 2015-10-05T00:26:25.962Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

By "paradigm shift", I mean a certain amount of unlearning, overturning previously established beliefs -- the fixity of species ion the case of evolution, absolute simultaneity in the case of relativity, determinism in the case of quantum mechanics.

ETA:

You are not merely allowed but required to assign a very low prior, in the range of "bloody ridiculous", to propositions which contradict all your available information, or require some massively complex rationalization to be compatible with all your available information.

Note the contradicitions to "available information" listed above.

comment by gjm · 2015-09-29T16:43:27.286Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Your use of the phrase "religious delusions"

For the avoidance of doubt, I was putting that in the mouth of Hypothetical Modern-Day Karl Marx rather than expressing my own attitude to religion. (In case you care: I am an atheist; my wife is an active Christian; I firmly disagree with all the religions I know enough about to have an opinion but don't think words like "delusion" are generally helpful for describing them.)

As for the use of religion in the Sequences, I think what's going on is this:

  • Eliezer thinks it's really obvious, when one thinks clearly, that the usual religions are wrong.
  • He expects most of his readers to agree and have similar reasons.
  • On the other hand, there are plenty of religious people about, some of whom are very smart.
  • So he uses religion as an example of something that convinces lots of people despite being very wrong.
  • Of course some of his readers will disagree, but he anticipates less disagreement on religion than on other topics where he sees widespread wrongness.
  • He doesn't spend time arguing against religion because (1) he expects most people who remain religious despite exposure to hardcore rational thinking to be basically unpersuadable and (2) discussions of religion have a way of taking over (a bit like discussions of hot-button political issues) and he didn't want everyone engaged in religious flamewars rather than discussions of other things.

That all seems reasonable (whether or not correct) to me.

comment by CCC · 2015-09-29T19:03:21.827Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

For the avoidance of doubt, I was putting that in the mouth of Hypothetical Modern-Day Karl Marx rather than expressing my own attitude to religion.

...ah. I completely misconstrued your intentions there. My apologies.

As for the use of religion in the Sequences, I think what's going on is this:

I think you are very probably correct, or close to correct. Unfortunately, it seems to have had the effect of turning atheism into something of an applause light in the comments.

comment by gjm · 2015-09-29T19:45:13.042Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

turning atheism into something of an applause light

Well, religious (and anti-religious) debates have the reputation they have for a reason :-).

comment by RichardKennaway · 2015-09-30T09:47:21.419Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

As a religious person myself, I have to say that's the one part of the Sequences that seems to me to be poorly fitted.

Is this an instance of the template "As someone who believes X, I have to say that where this book argues against X is its weakest part."?

comment by gjm · 2015-09-30T11:01:57.051Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Obviously it is. The more interesting question is whether, as with many instances of that template, CCC thinks the anti-religious material is weakest only because it conflicts with CCC's opinions.

(Those of us who think religion is Bad and Wrong are of course at the same risk of overrating them as CCC is of underrating them.)

comment by CCC · 2015-10-05T08:08:16.213Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Yes, it probably is :)

However, I do think that I can provide an objective argument for it being poorly fitted. That argument is as follows; it is an important part of the Sequences that one should never write the conclusion to an argument before writing down the argument that leads to that conclusion (the last line on the page should not be written first).

Yet, in the particular case of atheism, we are shown only the last line, and not the supporting argument(s). Hence, poorly fitted to the Sequences as a whole.

comment by raydora · 2015-09-29T16:14:47.511Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

What can you predict with the existence of your God that you can't predict without?

And what makes your God more likely than any other God or Gods?

I suppose it's a question of granularity. While there have been a number of sound arguments for 16/64 equalling 1/4, there are hitherto no arguments of equal strength for the existence of any particular deity.

16/64 being equal to 1/4 allows people to predict what will happen when they scale objects.

comment by CCC · 2015-09-29T18:59:15.350Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

What can you predict with the existence of your God that you can't predict without?

The existence of an afterlife. The presence of free will.

And what makes your God more likely than any other God or Gods?

I start with the question, "Is there a God?", by which I mean a being both omnipotent and omniscient. I am confident that the answer to that question is "yes".

I have since assigned a number of further ideas to this concept, some of which are almost certainly wrong (but I'm not sure which ones). It is highly likely that someone else has come up with a more accurate idea of God than my idea. (There are seven billion people on Earth; the odds of my idea being the most accurate are laughably small).

...does that answer your question?

comment by raydora · 2015-09-29T22:14:47.678Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Yes, it does, though those answers lead to further questions.

How can you gain information from a prediction you cannot test, until you die? Is there some way to test it? Or have you encountered personal evidence of an afterlife already?

Why does free will or an afterlife require a God?

It's hard to convey tone in text, but these are honest questions. If they make you uncomfortable, it's fine if you ignore them.

Regarding the sequences, you may find it easier to derive the same information from books popularizing a lot of the source material it is based on, if the sequences themselves turn you off.

comment by CCC · 2015-09-30T08:08:29.722Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

How can you gain information from a prediction you cannot test, until you die?

Well, the obvious answer is "by dying". However, this also prevents me from communicating my results, calling the usefulness of the procedure into question...

Or have you encountered personal evidence of an afterlife already?

No, but there are people who have. Feel free to look them up.

Note that one of the requirements of canonisation as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church is that someone find evidence, sufficient to convince the Church, that the person being canonised is in the afterlife. So a look through the Vatican records will probably provide a number of examples to look over, if you'd like.

Why does free will or an afterlife require a God?

They do not require a God. My argument for both requires a God, but there may be other arguments that do not.

Regarding the sequences, you may find it easier to derive the same information from books popularizing a lot of the source material it is based on, if the sequences themselves turn you off.

Actually, by and large they don't. There is one element of the Sequences which niggles at me a bit, but it doesn't really bother me all that much; Eleizer is perfectly entitled to his opinions.

comment by gjm · 2015-09-30T11:20:21.253Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

there are people who have. Feel free to look them up.

This would be more impressive if it didn't so often happen that the ones with the best-sounding evidence so often turn out to be outright fraudulent. E.g., Eben Alexander's book ("Proof of Heaven") makes claims about his illness that are demonstrably untrue, and it turns out he's been in trouble before for reasons that call his integrity seriously into question (e.g., there is reason to think he's falsified patients' medical records); Alex Malarkey ("The Boy who went to Heaven") retracted his claims to have died and visited heaven.

one of the requirements of canonisation

Yeah, they do indeed require evidence sufficient to convince the church that the person is in the afterlife. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem like the church needs terribly good evidence. Typically what they want to see is a miracle performed by the proto-saint's intercession. E.g., the miracle that qualified the former Pope John Paul II for beatification (he hasn't been canonized yet) is that a nun had a neurological condition, she prayed for him to intercede for her, and she stopped having symptoms. But (1) no one actually knows exactly what condition she has or had, and hence no one knows how likely remission is even without divine intervention, and (2) she appears to have had a relapse since the alleged miracle.

comment by CCC · 2015-10-05T08:34:18.776Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

This would be more impressive if it didn't so often happen that the ones with the best-sounding evidence so often turn out to be outright fraudulent.

Yes, that is a problem - if you're making up the claim, you can make up evidence to be as convincing as you want.

Yeah, they do indeed require evidence sufficient to convince the church that the person is in the afterlife. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem like the church needs terribly good evidence.

Considering that the Church already thinks that there is an afterlife, the burden of proof they require is almost certainly lower - possibly significantly lower - than the burden of proof that you would be looking for... it's just the potential source of evidence that came most immediately to mind at the time.

comment by entirelyuseless · 2015-09-30T14:40:37.421Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

John Paul II was canonized more than a year ago (you might have been looking at an older news source and not noticed the date on it.) There are definitely problems with the Church's canonization process, and if they really cared about the validity of miracles like that, they should publish the facts of the case and an explanation of why they think it was a miracle. But they don't do that, which allows for a lot more wishful thinking.

A more reasonable example of a miracle claim (which is not about the afterlife) is this. Most explanations which do not accept it as a miracle are mistaken in obvious ways, as for example Brian Dunning's explanation in the linked article. I'm not sure where he got the idea that doctors did not testify to the amputation, but that is simply completely false.

comment by gjm · 2015-09-30T15:17:54.684Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Whoops, you're right, he's been canonized now. Sorry about that.

I agree that the most convincing miracle stories aren't about the afterlife, but the question at issue here wasn't "do miracles ever happen?" but "do we have good evidence of an afterlife?"; the question arose because CCC cited the existence of an afterlife as something better explained by his variety of theism than by atheism.

(As to the specific alleged miracle you mention: at a remove of nearly 400 years, it seems difficult to say much about what actually happened; e.g., I don't see how we have enough evidence to rule out the possibility of a concerted fraud some time after the alleged events, the enquiry at Zaragoza being an outright fiction; or a smaller-scale earlier fraud along Dunning's lines, but with the doctors having been bribed to say what they did. Of course either of those would be a strange and unusual happening -- but stranger and more unusual than a completely amputated leg miraculously growing back?)

comment by VoiceOfRa · 2015-10-01T03:46:45.881Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Of course either of those would be a strange and unusual happening -- but stranger and more unusual than a completely amputated leg miraculously growing back?

This is circular reasoning. You can argue that your theory makes it likely that the miracle didn't happen, but then you can't use it as evidence for your theory.

comment by gjm · 2015-10-01T12:24:46.216Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

It's not circular reasoning; even without deciding between naturalism and the various candidate supernaturalisms we know from straightforward observation that major miracles are extremely rare and hoaxes are not so rare.

comment by VoiceOfRa · 2015-10-02T01:15:51.055Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Depending on the scale of the hoax.

comment by entirelyuseless · 2015-09-30T15:24:57.877Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I agree that even the most convincing miracle accounts do not necessarily imply that it is more reasonable to accept them than to suppose that they most likely have strange and unusual human and natural explanations. That's what I said earlier in comparing claims of revelation to claims of intelligent design in biology.

comment by hairyfigment · 2015-09-29T20:16:00.350Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

So, I can't help but note that the existence of an afterlife does not follow from "a being both omnipotent and omniscient." ("Free will" does not seem terribly well defined, but "possibility and could-ness" in the sense of that post does not follow either - save perhaps for the omni-being, and then only in a more general sense.)

What can you predict with the part you expressed confidence in? What makes you confident?

comment by CCC · 2015-09-30T07:52:40.491Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Ah. The presence of an omniscient, omnipotent being is important to the proof, but it is not the only element in that proof (the other elements are taken from observation of the universe, and are less controversial).

Consider; if an omnipotent, omniscient being exists, then it must take one of three stances with regard to humanity. It must either support the existence of humanity, or it must be neutral towards humanity, or it must support the non-existence of humanity. Since the being is omnipotent, if God wanted to wipe out humanity, God could (one or two well-placed asteroids a couple of million years back would have done it easily). Thus, I conclude that God is either in support of, or neutral towards humanity.

Now I also observe the universe around me, looking for traces of maliciousness in the laws of physics. So far, I have not found any. This implies that God is not into casual, petty cruelty without reason. It seems therefore likely that God is, at the very least, not evil.

The complete cessation of an intelligence would seem to be a great evil. Therefore, I postulate that there is a very strong probability that God has put some measures in place to prevent this. The measure most likely is some sort of afterlife; somewhere that a person can continue to survive, but not communicate back to those they leave behind.

Of course, this argument does not say that an afterlife is certain, given the existence of God, merely that it seems likely.


As to free will; here, I note that humans are demonstrably capable of the sort of casual cruelty that is absent from the laws of nature. Moreover, humans are capable of opposing each other. This strongly implies that at least some humans are capable of opposing what God wants. (This does not necessarily imply that said opposition has any chance of long-term success). This, in turn, seems to imply that humans do have some capacity to decide for themselves; hence, free will.

comment by gjm · 2015-09-30T11:22:06.993Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

If the absence of maliciousness in the laws of physics is good evidence that God is not evil, is the absence of benevolence in the laws of physics good evidence that God is not good?

comment by entirelyuseless · 2015-09-30T13:33:27.925Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

There is at least one thing in the laws of physics that seems like benevolence rather than the absence of it.

When animals have a strong tendency to do certain things, e.g. eat or engage in sex, those things tend to be pleasant to the animal.

That seems like benevolence. I could imagine a situation where everything that animals tended to do, was painful to them. You might say that is absurd, since then they would not tend to do those things. But they do those things because of the laws of physics, not because of how they feel. So there is nothing absurd about it, just like a person can be on a rollercoaster without any control over what is happening. It would be pretty terrible if life was like that, but fortunately it's not.

comment by Jiro · 2015-09-30T16:02:20.209Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

When animals have a strong tendency to do certain things, e.g. eat or engage in sex, those things tend to be pleasant to the animal.

How do you know that? (For central examples of "animal").

comment by entirelyuseless · 2015-10-01T12:21:56.419Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

The same way I know that you are a conscious being. In other words by comparing the way they behave with the way I behave.

comment by Jiro · 2015-10-01T16:03:57.867Z · score: 0 (4 votes) · LW · GW

That would imply that a bacterium engaging in things that feel pleasant to it. After all, like me, it tries to avoid things that cause it harm and tries to do things that benefit it.

It would also imply that a Roomba is engaging in things that feel pleasant to it.

comment by soreff · 2015-10-02T03:49:04.699Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

obligatory xkcd response:

http://xkcd.com/1558/

comment by Lumifer · 2015-09-30T16:51:23.962Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Think about someone who owns a dog.

comment by Jiro · 2015-10-01T03:37:14.687Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I did. How do you know that? You can't read the dog's mind and the dog can't talk to you. The dog could act in ways that you interpret as the dog being pleased, but trying to interpret it that way here would be circular reasoning since you are trying to show that the dog's actions show that things are pleasant to it.

comment by Lumifer · 2015-10-01T14:31:57.076Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

What are you claiming -- that a dog is inherently unable to have "pleasant" feelings, or that humans have no capability whatsoever to judge the what's happening in the mind of a dog on the basis of its behaviour?

comment by Jiro · 2015-10-01T16:01:43.355Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

In this context, you are claiming that "when animals have a strong tendency to do certain things, those things tend to be pleasant to the animal". Judging what is happening in the mind of the animal on the basis of its behavior, in order to support this claim, is circular reasoning.

comment by Lumifer · 2015-10-01T16:08:09.681Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

you are claiming

Nope, that's not me, that's entirelyuseless.

But you haven't answered my question.

comment by Jiro · 2015-10-01T20:54:10.681Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Nope, that's not me, that's entirelyuseless.

Sorry. Make that "you are supporting a claim that..."

But you haven't answered my question.

If you want the literal answer to your question, the answer is that I'm not claiming anything.

Note that disputing a claim of X is not itself a claim of not-X..

comment by gjm · 2015-09-30T14:35:05.244Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

That isn't in the laws of physics, except in the trivial sense in which everything that happens in the world is "in the laws of physics" (in which case of course there are vastly many benevolent and malicious things "in the laws of physics").

But they do those things because of the laws of physics, not because of how they feel.

I think there's a false dichotomy there. They do those things because of how they feel, and they feel the way they do because of the laws of physics. (Note that if you deny the latter half of this then you definitely aren't entitled to say that this is "in the laws of physics".)

comment by entirelyuseless · 2015-09-30T14:49:44.259Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I agree that in the normal sense, they do those things because of how they feel, and that they feel the way they do because of the laws of physics.

That's kind of my point. When I said, "They do those things because of the laws of physics, not because of how they feel," I meant this: I can imagine laws of physics that would imply that they do more or less the same things they do now, but they constantly feel bad about it. This is not something that might be impossible, like a zombie hypothesis. It is certainly possible, as is evident from the rollercoaster example.

In other words, the question is why the laws of physics and the way people feel are related in the way that they are, instead of a different way which would be much worse. I don't see any strong argument that the actual way is intrinsically much more probable.

And even if we showed that it is intrinsically more probable, someone could simply say that this shows that God is intrinsically good.

comment by gjm · 2015-09-30T15:21:32.748Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I see a very strong argument that the actual way is much more probable. What does it mean to say that something feels bad? Mostly, I think, that whoever (or whatever) it feels bad to is strongly motivated to make it not happen. That's what feeling-bad is for, evolutionarily; it's what distinguishes those feelings as bad ones. So of course we should expect that people (and other animals) tend to do things that feel better in preference to things that feel worse.

(You might argue that the overall level of good-feeling is higher than we'd expect. But I don't see any reason to think that.)

comment by entirelyuseless · 2015-09-30T15:27:41.407Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

As I said, I think there's an argument there for the goodness of God (or at least of the goodness of the universe) even if this relationship is intrinsically probable or even necessary.

This is probably another way of putting the same thing: do you think that overall it is good to exist? If the universe overall is neutral, the overall expectation would seem to be that it would be neutral to exist. But most people think it is good to exist. That suggests that overall the universe is good.

comment by hairyfigment · 2015-09-30T19:09:25.757Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

But most people think it is good to exist.

We just had someone argue that in practice they don't (speaking of evolution). I don't wholly endorse the argument, but let's not casually dismiss it - the point that people need something to live for seems true enough.

comment by entirelyuseless · 2015-10-01T12:19:44.813Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

That post was not arguing that people think that overall it is bad to exist. It was arguing that people don't think it is good to exist forever, which is quite different.

comment by hairyfigment · 2015-10-02T02:21:54.185Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Balderdash. The link argues that people do not want to keep living for even a matter of millenia if they "have nothing to live for," in the author's own words (and he argues that most people only care about having/raising children, which they lose interest in). This is clearly evidence for people being indifferent between existence and non-existence without a goal, or "neutral" as you put it before you somehow forgot that alternative.

comment by entirelyuseless · 2015-10-02T12:21:06.914Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

That would still mean that existence was overall good for them by giving them the possibility of raising children (or reaching other goals they might have), which they would not have otherwise.

comment by gjm · 2015-09-30T15:30:04.889Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I don't see how such an argument would work, as I've said in another comment. Perhaps explain there if you feel like it?

comment by Gram_Stone · 2015-09-30T15:10:59.340Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Physics seems like a weirdly low-level thing if we're thinking about whether or not animals' behavior could remain the same and their subjective experience could be a state of what we would call suffering in some possible world. I just don't think that you could make edits on that level and have changes that are so fine-tuned. Editing physics doesn't leave everything alone except subjective experience; editing physics breaks fire.

And if we have to settle for a physics that leaves at least most everything the same and life remains possible, then why wouldn't we expect reward mechanisms to evolve and for the default state of affairs to be one in which adaptive experiences 'feel good' and others 'feel bad'?

gjm called this a false dichotomy, but I think a better though perhaps more complex way of putting it is that you're mixing up your multi-level maps. Take free will and determinism as an example. Some people become fatalists because they think that determinism contradicts their idea of what possibility means. But they're contaminating their maps. You have a low-level map of physics where everything is lawful and there is no thing similar to what you might call 'possibility.' Then you have a high-level map of decision-making, and the fatalists take the lawfulness from their low-level physics map and draw it onto their high-level decision-making map, and say, "Well, the lawfulness overrules the possibility", and then they start making null decisions, but that's wrong. Possibility is a primitive notion in your high-level decision-making map and only in that map, just like the laws of physics are primitive notions in your low-level physics map and only in that map. In the territory, your brain runs on physics and your decision-making algorithm runs on physics, and your decision-making algorithm computing the output of logical nodes making decisions other than the one that it must make makes you feel possibility, and the whole process is lawful, and you have a bridge map between these two levels of maps; but the map is not the territory, and that goes both ways, and your high-level decision-making map is not the territory either, and sticking physics into it is like mixing apples and oranges. And even if that seems counterintuitive, I would say that any other policy is wrong, because the fatalists lose and the compatabilists win.

comment by entirelyuseless · 2015-09-30T15:18:40.110Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I agree with you about compatabilism, but I don't think that answers my question.

I am not saying that you could have physical situation exactly like the real world except with subjective experience reversed. I agree that in order to reverse subjective experience, you would need to make physical changes.

But with those physical changes, why couldn't you have a situation where adaptive experiences feel bad and non-adaptive ones feel good?

Maybe this is impossible. But if it is impossible, maybe that just shows that God is necessarily good.

comment by gjm · 2015-09-30T15:27:18.464Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

a situation where adaptive experiences feel bad and non-adaptive ones feel good

How are you defining "bad" and "good", in this world whose creatures are so different from us?

I suggest: "feel good" means "have subjective properties that tend to make such creatures seek experiences that have them" and "feel bad" means "have subjective properties that tend to make such creatures avoid experiences that have them".

In which case, a world in which adaptive experiences feel worse than non-adaptive ones is a world in which creatures systematically pursue maladaptive goals and avoid adaptive ones. Evolution will get rid of such creatures pretty quickly, no?

if it is impossible, maybe that just shows that God is necessarily good.

Suppose I'm right about evolution (see above); how would you get from there to "God is necessarily good"?

comment by entirelyuseless · 2015-09-30T15:45:19.965Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I basically agree with your definitions. However:

Subjective properties that tend to make a creature seek something can only do that because those subjective properties correspond to some objective physical property, at least if you aren't supporting dualism.

Why do the subjective properties that, in fact, tend to make people seek such experiences, correspond to objective properties that lead to that particular physical result (i.e. tending to physically move toward those results.)

You can say this is a tautology, and it is, in a way. But if we are simply talking about the particular subjective property in itself (as opposed to the fact that we happen to be pointing to it using our tendency to seek it), it is not a tautology, even if it may be a physical necessity.

In other words: zombies are probably physically impossible. But if they were possible, and if they were actual, instead of real humans, then reality would be neutral, neither good nor evil, since there would be no experience. In a similar way, negative-humans (who tend to seek painful experiences and avoid pleasant ones) are likely physically impossible. But if they were possible and actual, then the universe would be evil, and nearly all experiences would be bad.

But as it is, most experiences are good, and the universe is good. Talking about God here is probably a distraction, but if the universe is good, then its cause or causes should also be good. If the facts that make the universe good are necessary, then its causes are necessarily good.

comment by gjm · 2015-09-30T16:48:01.223Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I suggest that things coming out of evolutionary biology are more like logical than physical necessities; we would expect the same sort of dynamics to apply even with very different physical laws. (On the other hand, the "necessity" involved is weaker, because evolution is a stochastic process and it's very possible for suboptimal bits of design to get fixed in a population.)

So, anyway, the situation seems to be something like this: Any organisms with anything we could reasonably identify as "feeling good" or "feeling bad" experiences will tend to seek the ones that "feel good" in preference to the ones that "feel bad", almost tautologously. This means that, doing whatever they do, they will tend to "feel better" than we can imagine them doing if (e.g.) they absurdly sought out "feeling bad" experiences in preference to "feeling good" ones.

So far, so good. But to describe this by saying that "most experiences are good, and the universe is good" seems wrong to me, and I don't see how you get from "the facts that make the universe good are necessary" to "its causes are necessarily good". To expand on those points:

First: yes, living things will do nicer things in preference to nastier. But those are comparative terms. If everything in (say) human experience were made substantially more or substantially less pleasant uniformly it would have little impact on our decisions, but surely it could change whether "most experiences are good". My actual impression is that most experiences are neutral and the amounts of good and bad aren't terribly different. We have both orgasms and headaches; both enlightenment and boredom; both the satisfaction of a job well done and the frustration of failing to achieve what we should. I don't see any reason to think other animals' balance is very different.

Second: if "the universe is good" is meant to be just another way of saying "most experience is good" then I don't think passing from one to the other does anything other than invite confusion. If it's not, then I think you need some further justification for saying that the universe is good.

Third: let's suppose, e.g., that some simple argument in terms of evolution does lead to the conclusion that, largely independent of the details of physical law etc., most experiences of most living things will be experienced as good rather than bad. How do you get from there to "the causes of the universe are necessarily good"? I just don't see it. There certainly isn't any generally valid inference from "X has property P" to "the causes of X have property P"; consider e.g. the case where X is the physical universe and P is "is made of matter and energy" or "is made of quantum fields" or something of the kind; if the physical universe has causes at all then they might be mathematical laws, or gods, or happenings in some other universe with different laws; they certainly needn't be made of the same stuff as our universe.

comment by entirelyuseless · 2015-10-03T12:51:15.735Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I think I disagree with the first part (that we can't understand the idea of something doing things that feel bad rather than feel good, or that there are obvious reasons why this is impossible in principle), but I won't argue that for two reasons. First because that would probably end up being a very time consuming discussion, and second because, as I said, I think I can make my argument even if I grant your point.

Regarding your three points:

  1. It sounds like you are saying that there is a balance of good and evil in human life which is basically equal, so that overall life is neutral. If this is the case, it would certainly make sense to say that the universe is neutral as well. But I disagree that the overall balance is neutral, and I think that most people disagree. Most people have a strong preference to live, rather than to die, even in a painless way. This implies that they think the value of the rest of their life is significantly higher than zero. This suggests that you are undervaluing positive experiences and overemphasizing negative experiences, compared to the values that most people place on those. And I doubt that in practice you personally think your life is worthless on balance.

  2. When I say that the universe is good, I do not just mean that life or experience is overall good. If that needs additional justification, I will do that in addressing the third point.

  3. I agree that a cause does not always have the properties of the effect. But goodness has a particular meaning which affects the issue. Without trying to give a formal definition, saying that something is good certainly means something like "this is a desirable state of affairs," and likewise saying that something is bad would mean something undesirable. But then if a cause brings about a good effect, it brings about a desirable state of affairs. And if the thing was desirable, bringing it about was desirable, and so there is reason to call the cause good as well, even though it still doesn't mean exactly the same thing (to call the thing good and to call its cause good.)

comment by gjm · 2015-10-03T14:22:46.712Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I don't think my first part says quite what you say it says, but never mind that since you've agreed not to contest it :-).

On good versus neutral versus bad, and wanting to live: wanting and liking are different things, and I think there are (alas) plenty of people who feel that their life contains more bad than good but still have no wish to die. (And, also alas, some who admit that their life contains more good than bad but do want to die, at least some of the time.) No, I don't think my life is worthless on balance. I think I have an unusually good life. [EDITED to add: And I expect a lot of other people here on LW have unusually good lives too. It's a group selected for high intelligence (almost necessary to find much LW material interesting), reasonable amounts of leisure time (else we'd be doing other things), not being overwhelmed with other concerns (else again we'd be doing other things), easy access to the internet (since that's where LW is), membership in a somewhat-dominant culture (because LW is anglophone and founded by people in the US), etc. None of these things is universal here, none of them is either necessary or sufficient for a good life, but they all tend to be characteristic of LW participants and they all tend to go along with a more pleasant life.]

On causes and effects: if by "good" you mean only "bringing about more desirable than undesirable effects, on balance" then I am, at least provisionally, prepared to agree that if an effect is good then that's evidence for the goodness of each of its causes. But it seems to me that this is a much weaker sense of "good" than the one usually intended by people who say that God is "good". Suppose I have a child (as in fact I do) and that I alternate between treating her kindly and beating her (as in fact I do not). If I do her more good than harm, overall, does this justify calling me "good"? Of course not.

What does your argument from goodness of experience really come down to? Only this, I think: "The universe has in it more good experiences than bad, perhaps just because of the logic of evolution. So whatever, if anything, caused our universe to exist may have the property of tending to produce more good experiences than bad. The god in whom I believe is supposed to have that property, so this imbalance between good and bad experiences is evidence for that god". I hope it's clear that if so it's very weak evidence.

comment by entirelyuseless · 2015-10-03T17:11:06.114Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I basically agree with what you said about wanting and liking. That's one reason why it's easy for me to imagine a situation where I constantly do things that feel awful and avoid the pleasant ones. Because to some extent that already happens. But life is not even close to being like that as a whole.

I also agree that people on LW are likely to have better lives on average than people in general, and also that at least some people would say that overall there is more bad than good in their lives, while still not wanting to commit suicide or anything like that. But I very much doubt that this is even close to a majority of people, even in very poor countries or in a historical sense. I realize I could be wrong about this and that (if so) someone could prove it with the proper statistics. But this is my current sense of the situation.

Regarding calling the causes good, that is one reason why I said it was a distraction (relative to this argument) to talk about God. Because normally when people say "God," they think of a person, and in fact a particular person, with the result that instead of talking about some particular point, people are actually discussing whether or not the doctrines of someone's religion are true or false as a whole.

In any case, as you point out, saying that someone is a "good person," has a particular meaning, certainly more than saying that overall the person causes more good than bad. But in that way there is no contradiction in someone being a good thing but a bad person, because "good thing" and "good person" mean two different things.

I agree with your summary of the argument, at least as far as it goes.

comment by gjm · 2015-10-03T18:37:54.293Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Well, if you detach your argumentation about good versus bad experience from talk of "God", then all you're left with is: People have more good than bad experiences on the whole, so if the universe has causes then they are more likely to be such as to generally produce (ultimately) more good than bad experiences, than to be such as to generally produce (ultimately) more bad than good experiences.

Which is fair enough, but I'm sure originally this was being proposed as evidence for belief in a good god, and it really doesn't seem to me to offer more than a tiny amount (and, further, in so far as it does the highly mixed character of human experience seems to provide at least as much evidence against the perfectly good gods of various religions).

comment by entirelyuseless · 2015-10-03T19:24:42.636Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Actually, that wasn't how I meant it even originally (even if in fact it is weak evidence for that). I suppose it wasn't unreasonable for you to understand it that way because I used the word "benevolence," and in reply to a comment about whether God is good or not, but in fact I was only objecting to the implied claim that the laws of physics (and therefore whatever causes them) are overall absolutely neutral, and I used the word benevolence because you used it.

I agree with you that there is good evidence against the idea of God as a perfectly good person, in a literal sense, especially if you understand that in the sense that God is someone who is supposed to look at every particular thing which is happening and decide whether or not it's a good idea to allow it to happen or not. It seems very likely that no such thing is happening.

comment by gjm · 2015-10-03T19:52:13.554Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I was only objecting to the implied claim that the laws of physics [...] are overall absolutely neutral

Oh, OK! But in that case I wonder whether there's a miscommunication. I forget who was claiming that the laws of physics are "neutral", but what I would mean if I made such a claim is simply that nothing in those laws is about justice or charity or benevolence or honesty or anything of the kind. Of course it might turn out that the laws of physics have consequences of which we morally approve (e.g., living things tending to do things that lead to good rather than bad experiences) or disapprove (e.g., living things competing ruthlessly against one another much of the time), and if you believe in gods and devils and the like then you might think that some of those consequences are actually "design features" rather than emergent coincidences, but the laws themselves simply don't operate at the same level as moral considerations do.

It seems unlikely to me that anyone here was deliberately claiming, or implying, that the laws of physics can't have any consequences to which we attach moral weight.

comment by entirelyuseless · 2015-10-04T14:17:27.498Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

There was probably some miscommunication, perhaps because when people talk about things they have certain interests. This can happen in a completely non-truth related way, as e.g. a website like Answers in Genesis is not interested in discovering the truth, but in arguing for creationism without any regard for reality. However, even when people want to know or discuss the truth they still have particular motivations which affect the discussion. So for example if someone is interested at the moment in thinking about one particular aspect of reality, he is more likely to interpret other people's statements as being relevant to that consideration, even if they are in fact irrelevant or less relevant than he would like.

But I'm not sure it's completely an issue of miscommunication because I'm not very comfortable with your explanation here either. Let me try to summarize your comment before I try to explain why I have a problem with it:

  1. The laws of physics that we know and use are mathematical laws about mass and force and so on. It is obvious that these do not contain anything about justice etc.

  2. It turns out that these laws have various consequences which have moral importance for us, some good and some bad.

  3. But the laws "don't operate at the same level," even if someone might suppose that the above good or bad consequences are the result of someone's good or bad intentions. If they are an argument for such good or bad intentions, they are a fairly weak argument for it.

(I realize that there is more here than you said in the comment I'm replying to, but I'm summarizing also based on our previous discussion.)

I agree with all three of these points. However, I still have a problem with your comment as a whole, probably because of this: "you might think that some of these consequences are actually 'design features' rather than emergent coincidences."

It is perfectly obvious that mathematical laws as such are not about morality, and in that sense it is not an interesting question. But it seems unlikely that mathematical laws are the most fundamental causes of the world, because they are abstractions, not realities. So the more interesting question is, if the mathematical laws have other causes, what is the relationship of those causes to morality?

Your statement seems to suggest that either those causes designed morality and human life, or morality is an "emergent coincidence" relative to them, as it is relative to the mathematical laws in themselves. I think this is a false dichotomy. For example, fire makes things hot, and this is neither by design on the part of the fire, nor by emergent coincidence. Of course, you could say that this is because fire is "about" heat, while the laws of physics (and consequently their causes) are presumably not about morality. So if it isn't by design, it seems to be by coincidence.

I disagree with this conclusion, but there is no way to explain this disagreement without reopening the can of worms I was planning to keep closed. So instead of making that argument as a whole, I'll do it by talking about a question.

I think that dualism about experience is probably false. For example, some things look orange to me, and some things look blue. I don't think that it is possible to change that fact without either changing those objects physically, or changing me physically. With the appropriate physical changes on either side, however, it would be possible to make those orange things look blue, and the blue things look orange.

But despite this belief, I think it is a meaningful question to ask, "Why do oranges look orange to me, instead of blue?", and one that cannot be answered in an explanatory way by reference to those physical causes that would in fact change things so that oranges look blue.

I think it is a meaningful question, one that currently no one can answer. It is possible that no one will ever be able to answer it. And it is possible even that no one can answer it in principle, in the sense that the "answer" is not something intelligible to a human mind.

I do not think that answers that have to do with the structure of the human brain and the mathematical laws of physics do or can answer this question.

I do not think that it is a meaningless question, like "Why I am myself instead of being gjm?" This question is meaningless, not only in the sense that we cannot answer it, but in the sense that there is nothing that is being asked. There is no "I" who had the possibility of being either myself or someone else. It is clear to me that the question about orange and blue is quite different. A world where oranges look blue is a quite different world (unlike the world where I am gjm), and so it is meaningful to ask why we are not in that different world.

I could also make the question into "Why am I conscious at all, instead of being a philosophical zombie?", even though that might make the opening in the can of worms too wide. Note that saying that philosophical zombies are impossible does not answer the question. I agree that they are impossible, given the brute fact that we are actually conscious. The question is why they are impossible, and something being impossible is not always self-explanatory, and no one has yet explained this particular case. Nor does it explain it to give a lengthy explanation of physical causes which would lead to someone saying words like "I am conscious," even if he were a philosophical zombie.

The existence of this kind of question, and the impossibility of answering it in any standard way, suggests to me that there is something in the basic causes of laws of physics which has a stronger relationship with consciousness (and probably also good and evil, given how fundamental these are in our experience) than emergent coincidence, but different from design. Thus more like the relationship between fire and heat, although not exactly this relationship either.

comment by hairyfigment · 2015-10-04T17:27:41.055Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

It is by no means obvious that the laws of physics could not be about morality or humans. A law to prevent human beings from losing all of their limbs would, if expressed in the same 'language' as the other laws, be absurdly long - but any being we could reasonably describe as "omnipotent and omniscient" would have no trouble creating it.

I don't know if I understand the rest of the parent. Would you like to replace "oranges" with "dresses" and try again? If Martha's perceptions consisted entirely of connections, - let's say she could only register differences between the photons arriving from different areas and compare these mathematical differences with other patterns of difference, which may activate other nodes in her network - would she describe anything differently?

comment by entirelyuseless · 2015-10-04T17:40:10.598Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I didn't say it is obvious that there couldn't be laws of physics about morality or about humans. I said it is obvious that the ones we actually know and use are not about those things.

As for the rest, I'll adopt the style that Socrates calls "polemical," and say that "I have given my argument, if you disagree it is up to you to refute it." Mostly because I didn't want to get involved in that discussion in the first place.

comment by Gram_Stone · 2015-09-30T15:59:06.688Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Talking about God here is probably a distraction, but if the universe is good, then its cause or causes should also be good.

Actually, you're affirming the consequent. If the cause of the universe is good, then the universe will be good. But if we observe that the universe is good, then we cannot infer that the cause of the universe is necessarily good.

Classic example:

If I have the flu, then I have a sore throat. I have a sore throat. Therefore, I have the flu.

comment by entirelyuseless · 2015-10-01T12:25:54.009Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Affirming the consequent is valid in the terms of the evidence relation. In other words, the fact that I have a sore throat is evidence that I have the flu, although not proof.

In the same way, the universe being good is evidence that the cause is good. If up to that point, we assumed that the cause was entirely neutral, our best estimate will now be that the cause is good.

comment by Gram_Stone · 2015-10-01T19:03:46.830Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

That's true, but there are other equally explanatory hypotheses that don't involve good causes, so at the very least, the fact that the universe is good (although I would contest or at least qualify that claim) is not evidence either way. It doesn't help you figure out which possible world you're in.

comment by Gram_Stone · 2015-09-30T15:41:52.123Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I am not saying that you could have physical situation exactly like the real world except with subjective experience reversed. I agree that in order to reverse subjective experience, you would need to make physical changes.

To be clear, I didn't think you were proposing any sort of p-zombie-like hypothesis, where mental states are epiphenomenal or otherwise.

But with those physical changes, why couldn't you have a situation where adaptive experiences feel bad and non-adaptive ones feel good?

I think this is the same sort of error that a lot of people make when they ask "Why am I who I am instead of someone else?" They think that their identity exists primitively in the territory or even that it existed before their body; but it's a wrong question because they have the causality reversed. The question would make sense if you were some ghost-in-the-machine and you or someone else picked some physical body, but that's not how it works. Your body caused your mind, so you always are who you are and the question is confused. (I also don't mean to exclude the possibility of anthropic reasoning in this example.) The good and the bad don't exist primitively in the territory, they are caused by evolutionary processes that develop organisms with reward mechanisms, and we identify reward and punishment, among other things, with these high-level concepts of 'good' and 'bad' that didn't exist before us, so good is always good and bad is always bad and the question is confused.

Although with what I've seen in neuroscience, some creature like what you describe doesn't necessarily seem outside of the realm of physical possibility to me. If people can simultaneously observe that they are paralyzed and come up with endless excuses for why they aren't, and the cognitive processes we're talking about in this case aren't too intertwined, then I can perhaps conceive of a creature that continues to perform adaptive behaviors but experiences suffering and happiness in the reverse. But I would expect someone to have to construct it, not for it to evolve. Or maybe an evolved creature with the most horrible sort of oddly complex neurological lesion.

comment by CCC · 2015-10-05T08:38:29.399Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

That would be a reasonable argument to make.

I would follow it up by claiming that the existence of free will is evidence of benevolence in the laws of physics.

comment by gjm · 2015-10-05T09:41:13.156Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

With what definition of "free will"?

comment by CCC · 2015-10-06T09:05:39.120Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

"Free will" consists of the ability of a person to determine their own future actions by some entirely internal process (which can observe, but is not controlled by, external factors); where "person" is defined as a collection of stuff such that the collection of stuff that makes up you has no overlap with the collection of stuff that makes up me and neither of us have any overlap with the collection of stuff that makes up (say) Barack Obama, or Trevor Noah, or Jacob Zuma.

comment by gjm · 2015-10-06T16:08:16.932Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Do you understand "is not controlled by" in such a way that having "free will" is inconsistent with (1) purely deterministic physics and/or (2) purely deterministic+random physics? (On the face of it your definition makes free will inconsistent with #1 but not with #2, but I can e.g. imagine a definition that restricts those "external factors" to, say, the state of the world outside one's body in at most the last year, in which case "free will" might be compatible with outright determinism.)

comment by CCC · 2015-10-07T10:55:27.391Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I don't think that free will can be reconciled with purely deterministic physics - free will implies that, in exactly the same situation, with each and every particle in exactly the same space, I can still choose whether to purchase those biscuits or not.

On the other hand, my decision whether or not to purchase those biscuits is not exactly random, either. There are a number of factors that go into it - in fact, considering force of habit, quite a few of my decisions are extremely predictable. So I'm not sure that random physics is entirely reconcilable either.

comment by gjm · 2015-10-07T11:13:12.805Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

OK. So, do you consider that you actually have good evidence for the existence of free will in this sense? If so, what is that evidence?

The obvious alternative hypothesis, which seems to me to explain all the evidence I know of just as well, is that at the level of physics there's nothing but determinism and maybe randomness, but it looks different to us because we can't see all the details. We think "I could have done otherwise in the exact same situation" because we have seen ourselves and others do different things in very similar-looking situations, we can imagine making a different decision in what feels like the same situation, etc.; but we don't get to observe the exact states of all the particles that compose us and the world around us, and what we think of as "the same situation" may actually be quite different in its details. We also don't get to observe the mechanisms that lead to our making whatever choices we do, so those choices feel like opaque black-box miracles to us. No magical contra-causal free will is required for things to look this way to us.

comment by CCC · 2015-10-07T11:51:22.715Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I did think I had a good argument for free will (given the existence of God), but TheAncientGeek has punctured that. (I had a second argument as well, but I'm waiting to see whether TheAncientGeek has any comment on that one).

Aside from that, all I've really got is that:

(a) What I do feels like free will; that may be an illusion. (b) What other people do is consistent enough to suggest that their actions are being guided by individual, similarly free-willed minds.

...both of which are fairly weak evidence, if anything.

comment by entirelyuseless · 2015-10-07T15:09:58.305Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

It's clear that if you put someone in very similar situations and ask them to make a choice, over time they will converge to making a certain choice a certain percentage of the time. That could easily be the same percentage of the time that would be predicted by deterministic physics plus e.g. quantum uncertainty, so I don't see any reason in principle why your account of free will could not be consistent with everything happening according to the laws of physics, if there is randomness in the laws of physics.

As for the feeling, if a deterministic chess computer had feelings, it would have to have the feeling that it could make any move it wanted, because if it didn't feel that way, it couldn't consider all the possibilities, and it can't decide on a move without considering all the possibilities. This doesn't prevent chess computers from being deterministic, so it might not prevent you from having a feeling like that, even if your actions are in fact deterministic.

comment by Lumifer · 2015-10-07T15:53:00.258Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

It's clear that if you put someone in very similar situations and ask them to make a choice, over time they will converge to making a certain choice a certain percentage of the time.

No, it's not clear at all. If ask me to make choices in similar situations, first I might humor you, then I'll get bored and start fucking around with the system, and then I'll get really bored and stop cooperating with you. There won't be much of a convergence over time.

The abstraction is not the territory.

comment by JDR · 2015-10-07T16:56:54.859Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

then I'll get bored and start fucking around with the system, and then I'll get really bored and stop cooperating with you. There won't be much of a convergence over time.

The problem with that model seems to be that as time goes on, the situation in which you are put in becomes increasingly dissimilar to the original one, just because of we've added memories of having had to make this choice x number of times before. If we could run the experiment so that you always felt like it was the first time you were in this situation, perhaps by putting the same kind of decision in different contexts and spreading them out over time and with various distractions, do you think you'd still deviate in the same way?

I know I'm going back from territory to less practical abstraction here, but I think this kind of difficult-to-collect data would be more revealing for this question.

comment by Lumifer · 2015-10-07T17:10:47.937Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

If we could run the experiment so that

Most of my point is that you can not. Among I things, I change over time.

As a practical example, I drink beer. Various kinds of. My beer preferences do not converge over time. Instead, they wander over different styles, different hoppiness/maltiness/etc., even different breweries. I have no idea what kind of beer I will like in, say, a year, but it probably will be different from what I like now.

Showing that something works in a toy model does not show that the same thing works in actual reality.

comment by JDR · 2015-10-07T17:58:09.979Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Sure, I totally agree with you - in real life, we can really put a person in exactly the same situation twice. If we could, this whole free will argument would be a lot easier to solve.

That said, I do think the toy models are useful. Pretending we can do this experiment gives an answer to the problem I've never managed to pick a hole in (and tbh getting other people's input on it is the hidden motivation for entering this discussion):

If we could let you choose a beer, then rewind the universe - including all particles, forces, and known and unknown elements of cognition anyone might postulate such as souls and deities back to their starting position - then let it go again, there are only really two things that could happen: 1) you choose the same beer because that's what the universe was leading up to or 2) you choose a different beer despite the fact that all parameters of the universe known and unknown are the same.

The first outcome would suggest determinism; the second randomness, or at least independence from all variables which we consider "self" such as personality, memory and perhaps souls and things, since they were all rewound with the universe. I'd be really interested to hear of any third option anyone can think of!

As you say, showing this in a toy model isn't the same as showing it in actual reality; but when the actual experiment is impossible, one is arguing about abstract concepts anyway, and one has a lot of difficulty imagining outcomes not encompassed in the model I'm not sure we can do much better.

comment by Lumifer · 2015-10-07T18:27:18.843Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Pretending we can do this experiment gives an answer to the problem

Within the toy model, yes. In actual reality, you still don't know.

I'd be really interested to hear of any third option anyone can think of!

The trivial third option is to drink wine :-P

On a bit more serious note, if you set up the problem so that the outcomes are X and not-X, there could be no third option.

comment by entirelyuseless · 2015-10-07T18:34:40.186Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I suspect that if we take the average of e.g. the bitterness of the beers that you have been drinking, it has already converged to an average, and future developments will probably not change that average much, even if there are some years when you drink sweet beers and some years when you drink bitter beers.

comment by Lumifer · 2015-10-07T18:41:07.304Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I suspect that if we take the average of e.g. the bitterness of the beers that you have been drinking, it has already converged to an average

Empirically speaking, you are wrong.

comment by entirelyuseless · 2015-10-07T18:51:43.388Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Perhaps, although I don't see how you can know that unless you have been making measurements, or unless it has definitely been going in the direction of getting more and more sweet, or more and more bitter.

In any case, since beer does not differ an infinite amount in sweetness and bitterness, it won't be easy to stop that average from converging sooner or later.

comment by Lumifer · 2015-10-07T18:56:37.095Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I don't see how you can know that

Um, if I'm swinging from Lambics to Stouts with excursions into IPAs and Belgian Trappists, do you really think I converged on a particular bitterness?

it won't be easy to stop that average from converging sooner or later.

Random walk, even if bounded, does not converge.

comment by entirelyuseless · 2015-10-07T18:59:48.738Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

The random walk doesn't converge. But the average position does.

comment by Lumifer · 2015-10-07T19:03:27.853Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

The concept of convergence does not apply to the "average position". It always exists.

You are probably thinking of statistical estimation with uncorrelated errors. That is not the case here, you are not estimating some unobserved parameter.

comment by entirelyuseless · 2015-10-07T19:10:22.935Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I mean your average position on any day taken as the average of all the values up to that day.

As days increase indefinitely, this changing average will converge (e.g. to the central value.)

comment by Lumifer · 2015-10-07T19:13:11.413Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

But that doesn't mean my taste in beer will converge to some value. All it means is that the average of history of my beer wanderings will be somewhere around the middle of the range -- an observation which is quite useless for the free will debate.

comment by entirelyuseless · 2015-10-07T19:18:56.743Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

The general point I was making is that there is nothing about free will, even if by definition it means you have more than one option in the same physical situation, which gives us a reason to expect a pattern different from determinism with the addition of some randomness. So unless someone can show how those patterns would be different, there isn't any special reason to suppose that our actions couldn't correspond entirely to the laws of physics, without that meaning we don't have free will.

comment by Lumifer · 2015-10-07T20:10:14.582Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

a pattern different from determinism with the addition of some randomness

That's heavily underspecified. Most everything can be fit into a pattern of "determinism with the addition of some randomness".

In any case, you started with a specific claim that the choices will converge. Outside of the toy-model setup I didn't think it was necessarily true and I still don't think so.

comment by entirelyuseless · 2015-10-07T20:29:08.495Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I meant that the changing average of the choices will converge, in the way I expect to happen in the beer case. I still think this will happen under all normal circumstances.

comment by CCC · 2015-10-08T09:28:14.961Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I, um...

I'm not seeing what that says about free will. If you pick out a selection of numbers from one to a hundred, and you keep going, then the more numbers you pick out the less effect each new number will have on the running average.

I just don't see how this leads to "free will can be explained by deterministic physics plus randomness".

comment by entirelyuseless · 2015-10-08T12:33:57.836Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I don't think it proves that. I think it suggests that it may be the case. We already know that deterministic physics plus randomness will result in statistical patterns like that. I am just saying that free will is going to result in statistical patterns as well.

As far as I know, those could be the same patterns, which would mean that free will would be consistent with deterministic physics plus randomness. That is not a proof. I am just saying I don't know of any specific reasons to think those patterns will be different. Do you have reasons like that?

comment by CCC · 2015-10-12T10:53:57.315Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

The thing is, the "pattern" you've picked up is a pattern that every series of numbers follows - that every series of numbers must follow. Any hypothesis will result in the same pattern - if I think that free will is controlled by the number of cookies eaten in Western Australia every second Tuesday, and I try to see if it follows the pattern of the average converging to a value as more samples are added, I'll find the same pattern.

If "having the same pattern" is to have any sort of predictive power at all, then that pattern must be a pattern that the data can possibly not have under another hypothesis.

comment by gjm · 2015-10-12T11:23:29.736Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I'm mystified by this discussion. entirelyuseless seems to be saying that if you look at the history of choices someone has made in similar situations, they will show some kind of convergence, which I see no reason at all to believe. And CCC seems to be saying that every sequence of numbers shows this pattern, which I not only see no reason to believe but can refute. (E.g., consider the sequence consisting of one +1, two -1s, four +1s, eight -1s, etc. The average after 2^n-1 steps oscillates between about -1/3 and about +1/3.) And none of this seems to have anything much to do with free will; in so far as the "libertarian" notion of free will makes sense at all, it seems perfectly consistent with making choices that average out in the long run, at least with probability -> 1 or something of the kind, and determinism is perfectly consistent with not doing so, since e.g. the sequence of numbers I just described can be produced by a very simple computer program (at least if it either has infinite memory or has at least a few hundred bits and isn't observed for longer than the lifetime of the universe).

comment by CCC · 2015-10-13T10:45:40.297Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

...I had understood "converges" to mean that each successive sample moves the rolling average by a smaller and smaller amount.

comment by gjm · 2015-10-13T13:33:19.825Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Well, that isn't what "converges" means in mathematics (it means there's a particular value towards which one gets and stays arbitrarily close), but with that definition it is indeed tautologously true that wandering around within a bounded region yields "converging" averaged values. (But not if the region can be unbounded. Easy counterexample: One +1, two -2, four +4, eight -8, etc.)

comment by RichardKennaway · 2015-10-13T13:38:30.172Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Well, that isn't what "converges" means in mathematics (it means there's a particular value towards which one gets and stays arbitrarily close), but with that definition it is indeed tautologously true that wandering around within a bounded region yields "converging" averaged values.

If the steps get smaller sufficiently slowly, there are counterexamples similar to yours with +1s and -1s. It's difficult to get convergence short of explicitly imposing convergence.

Confinement to a bounded region implies accumulation points (points to which some subsequence converges), but there can be any number of those. They can even be dense in the space.

comment by gjm · 2015-10-13T14:07:20.441Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

There are counterexamples to convergence-in-the-usual-sense, and my example was one of them.

If one takes CCC's statement of what s/he meant by "convergence" absolutely at face value, then there are not only counterexamples but trivial counterexamples; e.g., begin 0,0,1; the first step moves the rolling average by 0 and the second doesn't.

What I took CCC as actually meaning was that the differences converge-in-the-usual-sense to zero, or equivalently that one can make them small enough by waiting long enough. That's straightforwardly true because if the diameter of your region is D then after n steps your average can't move by more than D/n per step.

comment by CCC · 2015-10-14T09:45:27.540Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

What I took CCC as actually meaning was that the differences converge-in-the-usual-sense to zero, or equivalently that one can make them small enough by waiting long enough. That's straightforwardly true because if the diameter of your region is D then after n steps your average can't move by more than D/n per step.

Just to confirm - yes, that's what I'd meant. Which it trivially true, yes; that is why I couldn't understand why entirelyuseless was attaching any special significance to it.

comment by RichardKennaway · 2015-10-13T14:56:04.678Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

What I took CCC as actually meaning was that the differences converge-in-the-usual-sense to zero, or equivalently that one can make them small enough by waiting long enough.

That's what CCC said in his last post, but it's not a useful property for showing what was originally claimed by entirelyuseless, who said:

I meant that the changing average of the choices will converge, in the way I expect to happen in the beer case.

This doesn't follow from shrinking steps, because:

That's straightforwardly true because if the diameter of your region is D then after n steps your average can't move by more than D/n per step.

The sum of that over all n is divergent, so the average can move around anywhere if you wait long enough. In fact, for any number of passes of averaging, that will still be true: if the underlying sequence goes somewhere and sticks there long enough, the average will eventually get there. Then the underlying sequence can go somewhere else, and so on.

To put this in more concrete terms, with an example of a property that for many people shows no long-term stability in their lifetime, consider physical location (relative to the geocentric frame). A person may live for years in one place, then years in another town or another continent, and make such moves at various times in their life. For such a person, there is no useful concept of their average location. In the case of the original example, a person's taste in beer can make just as drastic changes, on top of which, the world changes and new beers are created, the space of the random walk changes as the walk is being made.

entirelyuseless's original claim:

The random walk doesn't converge. But the average position does.

cannot be salvaged.

comment by gjm · 2015-10-13T22:05:21.400Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I agree. (Did something I said give a contrary impression? I thought I'd said right at the outset that the original claims of both entirelyuseless and CCC are wrong.)

comment by entirelyuseless · 2015-10-14T00:12:59.964Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I have already said that I agree that it is mathematically possible to prevent the average from converging, just that this is not likely to happen in real life. In RichardKennaway's comment, "goes somewhere and sticks there long enough" means progressively longer periods of time, and so is not realistic.

comment by entirelyuseless · 2015-10-12T13:27:17.884Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I'm not saying that people's choices converge in the sense of getting closer to a particular value, but that the average converges. You are right to say that this is not a necessary property of every sequence of values (and CCC was mistaken.)

You say that there is no reason to think I am right about this, but your proposed sequence of numbers suggests that I am, namely by showing that the only way the average won't converge is if you purposely choose a sequence to prevent that from happening. Suppose you offer someone chocolate or vanilla ice cream once a week. I think there are very good reasons to think that the moving average would begin to change slower and slower very quickly, and would basically converge after a while. This would happen unless the person used a sequence like the above: namely, unless he chose a sequence with the explicit intention of preventing convergence.

I agree that someone can have this intention, and that this would not refute determinism. In that sense you could say that the whole discussion is irrelevant. But the relevance, from my point of view, is that it makes the question more concrete. The basic point is that you can, if you want, define free will so that it is not consistent with determinism. But then it will be consistent with determinism plus randomness, unless you propose some prediction which is not consistent with the second. And no one had done that. So no one has even suggested a definition of free will which would be inconsistent with being produced by some form of physical laws.

comment by CCC · 2015-10-13T10:51:47.338Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

So no one has even suggested a definition of free will which would be inconsistent with being produced by some form of physical laws.

Given that our universe clearly does operate on some form of physical laws, if anyone were to provide such a definition of free will, it should be trivial to show that it's not how our universe works.

comment by gjm · 2015-10-12T15:02:17.749Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I think there are very good reasons to think that the moving average would begin to change slower and slower very quickly, and would basically converge after a while.

Not if the person's preferences are changing gradually over time. That is a real thing that really happens.

(For the avoidance of doubt: I agree that any notion of free will it's credible to think we have is consistent with physicalism.)

comment by entirelyuseless · 2015-10-12T16:23:50.393Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I agree that a person's preferences can change over time but it will not have the effect of an average that goes back and forth without his preferences changing back and forth, but remaining stable at the extremes for longer and longer periods of time (much like your sequence). This is not a likely thing to happen in real life.

Anyway I also agree that the particulars of this are not that important to my point.

comment by entirelyuseless · 2015-10-12T14:02:25.567Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Basically I am saying that deterministic physics plus randomness can produce any possible pattern, as you're noting. So it can also produce the pattern produced by free will. Or do you have some idea of what free will would do which is different from deterministic physics plus randomness? If so, I haven't see it suggested yet.

comment by CCC · 2015-10-13T10:48:12.698Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Basically I am saying that deterministic physics plus randomness can produce any possible pattern, as you're noting. So it can also produce the pattern produced by free will.

Yes, I agree. It can. Deterministic physics alone can, if you have a long enough list of rules.

comment by CCC · 2015-10-08T09:23:21.862Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

As for the feeling, if a deterministic chess computer had feelings, it would have to have the feeling that it could make any move it wanted, because if it didn't feel that way, it couldn't consider all the possibilities, and it can't decide on a move without considering all the possibilities.

...I'm not seeing this. It can consider all the possibilities even if it knows that it must play the possibility with the highest odds of winning - in fact, knowing that means that it must consider all the possibilities in order to calculate those odds, surely?

comment by entirelyuseless · 2015-10-08T12:37:12.628Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Even if it knows that it must play the move with the highest odds of winning, as far as it knows when it starts considering, that could be any of the moves.

But yes that would be knowledge that its move is objectively deterministic. This would not necessarily prevent it from feeling like it could make any move it wanted, just like people who believe themselves subject to deterministic physics still feel like they can do whatever they want.

But the chess computer doesn't have to know what is determining its moves, in which case it will be even more likely to feel that it can make whatever move it wants.

comment by CCC · 2015-10-12T10:55:26.774Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Well, yes, feeling like it has freedom doesn't really prevent it from not having freedom; but I don't see how the feeling of freedom makes any difference at all. Why shouldn't the chess computer feel constrained?

comment by entirelyuseless · 2015-10-12T13:29:13.970Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I agree that the feeling doesn't make any difference. That's what I'm saying: whether it feels constrained or not, it may or may not be deterministic. Those are two different things. The same is true for us.

comment by gjm · 2015-09-30T11:29:55.291Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

"Free will" is an ambiguous term. The sort of free will you've argued for here could be paraphrased as "not being God's puppets", but I hope it's obvious that that can't be evidence of God's existence. But you listed "free will" as something you can explain with God better than without!

I really don't think the fact that people sometimes do things a god should be expected to disapprove of can be evidence for that god's existence. Do you?

(Perhaps the argument you have in mind makes essential use of the fact that humans engage in a kind of cruelty "that is absence from the laws of nature". But I don't see how that can work. We should expect human behaviour, even if entirely derived from the laws of nature, to have features that aren't apparent when looking at the laws themselves -- just as, e.g., in Conway's "Game of Life" there are phenomena like gliders that aren't apparent from the almost-trivial rules of the game.)

comment by CCC · 2015-10-05T08:45:21.756Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

"Free will" is an ambiguous term. The sort of free will you've argued for here could be paraphrased as "not being God's puppets", but I hope it's obvious that that can't be evidence of God's existence. But you listed "free will" as something you can explain with God better than without!

Ah, let me elaborate, then.

Whether God exists or not, one can postulate a universe in which people are puppets - philosophical zombies, moving and acting according to some purely deterministic set of rules.

In the atheistic universe, those behaviours may be at odds with one another, because the rules are not guided; they do not have an aim. They may optimise for some goal on the individual, or even the group level, but there is no reason why they should do so in an efficient manner; a puppet universe may include humans who oppose each other.

In the theistic universe, the presence of an omnipotent, omniscient being suggests that there is some purpose to the universe. If all people are puppets, then, it is to be expected that all people work tirelessly towards a single goal, without opposing each other.

Therefore, the observation that people oppose each other cannot be used to argue for free will in the atheistic universe, but can do so in the theistic universe.

I really don't think the fact that people sometimes do things a god should be expected to disapprove of can be evidence for that god's existence. Do you?

You've got it backwards. I'm not using it as evidence for God's existence; I'm using it as evidence for free will, given the existence of God as a postulate.

comment by TheAncientGeek · 2015-10-05T09:35:35.251Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

In the atheistic universe, those behaviours may be at odds with one another, because the rules are not guided; they do not have an aim. They may optimise for some goal on the individual, or even the group level, but there is no reason why they should do so in an efficient manner; a puppet universe may include humans who oppose each other.

You are treating puppet and zombie as equivalents, but they are not. Rational deterministic agents may or may not succeed in co operating. Co-operation is probably the outcome that ideal rational agents would tend to , but non ideal agents face barriers to co operation. Puppets in a theistic universe may or may not co-operate depending on what the Puppetteer wants: some Purposes are served by struggle. Maybe the Puppetteer is a Nietzchian , who wants conflict and struggle to develop strength.

In the theistic universe, the presence of an omnipotent, omniscient being suggests that there is some purpose to the universe. If all people are puppets, then, it is to be expected that all people work tirelessly towards a single goal, without opposing each other.

Puppets may or may not oppose each other, zombies may or may not oppose each other, free agents may or may not oppose each other. There's nothing you can deduce.

comment by CCC · 2015-10-05T09:43:22.563Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

You are treating puppet and zombie as equivalents, but they are not.

You are right that I am treating them as equivalent. How are they different?

comment by TheAncientGeek · 2015-10-05T10:12:30.172Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Zombie=driven determinstitcally by their own inner workings, inherently predictable.

Puppet=controlled by an external force, not necessarily predictable, since the Puppeteer could be controlling them whimsically.

comment by CCC · 2015-10-06T09:11:19.118Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

In that case, it sounds like the "zombie" is the atheistic no-free-will scenario, while the "puppet" is the theistic no-free-will scenario?

In that case, my argument is that the fact that people oppose each other quite strongly at times seems to suggest that we are not puppets but neither confirms nor denies the zombie hypothesis.

comment by TheAncientGeek · 2015-10-06T13:59:54.351Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

In that case, it sounds like the "zombie" is the atheistic no-free-will scenario, while the "puppet" is the theistic no-free-will scenario?

Yep.

In that case, my argument is that the fact that people oppose each other quite strongly at times seems to suggest that we are not puppets

I don't see that. We make our own puppets fight, eg in video games.

comment by CCC · 2015-10-07T10:47:39.739Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I don't see that. We make our own puppets fight, eg in video games.

...you make an excellent point. In fact, I think you've pretty much invalidated my entire (presented) argument for free will given the existence of God.

I have an alternative argument in favour of free will (given the existence of God) if you'd like to have a look over it - it requires not just God, but a (at least vaguely) benevolent God, which is why I didn't present it earlier (it requires more assumptions therefore it is a weaker argument).

In short, the alternative argument runs as follows; start with the assumption of a benevolent God (and noting the lack of malevolence in the laws of physics as at least weak evidence for the benevolence of a deity). Note that humans, unlike the laws of physics, are capable of being malevolent towards each other; extremely malevolent, in some cases. If they were puppets of a generally benevolent God, then that malevolence is out of place; and this is therefore evidence in favour of free will. (This also implies that God considers free will more important than preventing malevolence).

comment by gjm · 2015-10-05T09:42:38.050Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

You've got it backwards. I'm not using it as evidence for God's existence

You were earlier when the topic first came up in this thread.

What can you predict with the existence of your God that you can't predict without?

The existence of an afterlife. The presence of free will.

comment by CCC · 2015-10-06T09:08:42.854Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Er... no, I wasn't.

The question that was asked was "What can you predict with the existence of your God that you can't predict without?" I parsed this as "What can be shown, taking the existence of God as a postulate, that cannot be shown without that postulate?"

And one of the things that can be shown to be at least more likely with that postulate than not, is free will. Thus, I included it in the response to the question.

...I'm now beginning to wonder if I entirely missed the point of that question.

comment by gjm · 2015-10-06T16:12:16.252Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I'm now beginning to wonder if I entirely missed the point of that question.

I think you did (but maybe I was the one who did); I took it to be presupposing that your belief in God is (or should be) the result of thinking that God explains some things about the world better than absence-of-God would, and asking what such things you had in mind. But maybe raydora was asking a question more like "what use is your belief?" than "what basis has your belief?". raydora, if you're reading this, which (if either) did you have in mind?

Anyway: my apologies for failing to consider the possibility that you were interpreting the question so differently from me and consequently misunderstanding the point of your answers!

comment by CCC · 2015-10-07T10:58:09.361Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Anyway: my apologies for failing to consider the possibility that you were interpreting the question so differently from me and consequently misunderstanding the point of your answers!

No worries, it's all straightened out now.

Incidentally, TheAncientGeek found a severe problem in my argument for free will elsewhere.

comment by entirelyuseless · 2015-09-30T13:42:41.547Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Not seeing maliciousness in the laws of physics is a very weak argument for an afterlife, because even if there is no afterlife, that doesn't mean that God is malicious. It just means that he doesn't prevent things from working the way they do naturally, just like he doesn't prevent a lion from eating a man, or a man from hunting the lion.

comment by ChristianKl · 2015-09-30T12:57:09.875Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

So far, I have not found any. This implies that God is not into casual, petty cruelty without reason.

Does that mean the bible which assumes that God wiped out most of humanity with the flood is definitely wrong and to the extend that God exists it's not the God of the bible?

comment by CCC · 2015-10-05T09:31:29.386Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Does that mean the bible which assumes that God wiped out most of humanity with the flood is definitely wrong

No.

a) The existence of an afterlife would mean that those people were not destroyed. They had a really bad day and then woke up someplace else.

b) The story of the flood, in itself, may be a parable (by which I mean, a story intended to teach a lesson, usually of a moral or ethical nature, without necessarily being true) like the parable of the Good Samaritan, or the story of the Garden of Eden.

c) There may have been reason for the flood.

Any one of these alternatives could answer your question; personally, I think (b) is the most likely, though (a) and (c) are also possible.

comment by gjm · 2015-10-05T13:39:14.228Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

What exactly do you mean by option (b)?

  • That whoever originally wrote that story intended it to be understood as fiction with a moral, rather than as truth?
  • That it may have originated as (alleged) history, but whoever incorporated it into the documents that became Jewish and Christian scriptures did so with the intention that it should be understood as fiction with a moral?
  • That whoever wrote it may have intended it to be seriously believed, but God arranged for it to land up in the Jewish and Christian scriptures with the intention that it should be treated as fiction with a moral?
  • That it doesn't really matter why it was written or how it got into the scriptures, but nowadays it should be understood as fiction?
  • Something else?

It seems to me that the first three of these imply a certain degree of incompetence on the part of the writers, editors, or god concerned, given how widely the story has been treated as history since its incorporation into scripture.

The fourth is fair enough, but it seems to me that (what I take to be) ChristianKI's inference "the bible contains this story, which is not true, so we should reduce our general confidence in what the bible says" is then reasonable (and indeed the decision to understand as fiction something in the bible that wasn't originally intended that way amounts to conceding that point).

Of course if the fifth option is right then all of the above may be moot.

comment by CCC · 2015-10-06T09:25:41.358Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

This is somewhat muddled by the idea that the original story may have been an oral tradition for some time before being written down - that is to say, the person who put pen to paper may not have been the one to create the story in the first place, and may in fact have been removed from that person by several generations.

So it is quite possible that whoever originally created the story may have intended it as fiction with a moral, but that it may have been understood as history by the person who put stylus to papyrus. Or it may have started out as history, gained some embellishment along the way, then rephrased to highlight a perceived moral, then embellished again to further highlight that moral, then only written down.

I am very uncertain of the history behind how it got there. I think that it is most probable that it is now fiction with a moral; and I think that there have been a whole lot of biblical passages that have been very firmly, and very publically, misunderstood by some people with very loud voices (such as pretty much the entire Creationism movement).

The fourth is fair enough, but it seems to me that (what I take to be) ChristianKI's inference "the bible contains this story, which is not true, so we should reduce our general confidence in what the bible says" is then reasonable (and indeed the decision to understand as fiction something in the bible that wasn't originally intended that way amounts to conceding that point).

I think that the Bible, especially the Old Testament, is a collection of some fiction, some non-fiction - one of the clearest examples of fiction (to my eyes) is the book of Job, which seems to be an entire story written in such a way that it can be performed as a play by a handful of actors with little-to-no equipment (all the dramatic stuff happens off-stage and is introduced by messengers running in and shouting "This happened!").

I think that the morals that the fictional parts try to show are important; they should not be simply discounted and tossed aside because they did not happen.

comment by gjm · 2015-10-06T16:17:23.494Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

oral tradition

Yeah. (I felt that my list of possibilities was already too long without bringing up the oral/written distinction, but it's important enough in view of the gradual evolution of oral traditions that that was probably a mistake on my part.)

I'm not sure quite what you mean by saying that it's now fiction with a moral; just that that's how believers do (or should) read it now, or something stronger?

I agree that some things in the Bible seem clearly to be intended as fiction; I'd put Jonah alongside Job in that category. And I agree that one absolutely shouldn't go from "X is fiction" to "let's ignore X". But going from "X was intended as history but turns out to be wrong history" to "let's ignore X" is more reasonable, though still not a slam-dunk (because maybe the story originated as wrong history but was kept around for the sake of things in it that don't depend on the history).

comment by CCC · 2015-10-07T11:00:44.982Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I'm not sure quite what you mean by saying that it's now fiction with a moral; just that that's how believers do (or should) read it now, or something stronger?

I'm pretty much saying that's how I read it.

I agree that some things in the Bible seem clearly to be intended as fiction; I'd put Jonah alongside Job in that category. And I agree that one absolutely shouldn't go from "X is fiction" to "let's ignore X". But going from "X was intended as history but turns out to be wrong history" to "let's ignore X" is more reasonable, though still not a slam-dunk (because maybe the story originated as wrong history but was kept around for the sake of things in it that don't depend on the history).

I'm not so sure about Jonah (he seems a good deal less clear-cut than Job - at the very least, Jonah would be very hard to stage without some pretty impressive special effects) but apart from that, I think I agree with everything in this paragraph.

comment by gjm · 2015-10-07T11:17:40.994Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I'm not suggesting that Jonah was intended as a play; I think it more likely that it was just intended to be read (or told aloud). But it seems (1) not very likely to be true-as-history even if we assume that some fairly miracle-happy version of Christianity or Judaism is right, (2) quite well designed as a story-with-a-moral, and (3) very much like the sort of story-with-a-moral that would get written to make a point. (I'm guessing that the background is one of controversy over the attitudes Israelites should have towards nasty heathen foreigners. Jonah is not meant to be a sympathetic figure in this story.)

comment by CCC · 2015-10-07T11:57:48.247Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Well, Ninevah at least was a place that actually existed (according to Wikipedia). Beyond that... well, you make some good points, but I still think it's far less clear-cut than Job.

comment by ChristianKl · 2015-10-05T19:13:49.747Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

b) The story of the flood, in itself, may be a parable (by which I mean, a story intended to teach a lesson, usually of a moral or ethical nature,

If it's a parable, isn't the parable about the fact that certain actions like gay sex are bad enough that they warrant a God engaging in genocide? Even if the God didn't actually commit the genocide but merely wanted to make the point that doing so is justified, that still seems bad to me.

comment by CCC · 2015-10-06T09:30:39.279Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I think there are multiple morals.

  • If you do something that you know you shouldn't, there will almost certainly be bad consequences.
  • Not knowing what those consequences are will not prevent them from happening.
  • If you act in the correct way and take competent instruction, you can save yourself even while everyone around you dies.
  • In such circumstances, it may not actually be possible to save those around you without dooming yourself.
  • When going out into a dangerous situation, find some way to check how safe it is first.
  • Look after your animals. (This would be more relevant in a more agricultural society)
comment by entirelyuseless · 2015-09-30T14:15:03.288Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

CCC already said that he thinks science is mostly right about the history of the universe, so presumably he does not believe such a flood ever happened.

Many Christians believe that such a flood never happened without thinking that the Bible is "definitely wrong" and without thinking that they believe in a God who is "not the God of the Bible."

comment by Lumifer · 2015-09-30T15:15:30.774Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

so presumably he does not believe such a flood ever happened.

Oh ye of little faith!

Global floods certainly happened in human history. What do you think happened to sea levels at the end of the last Ice Age (and humans were already around)?

There are claims that memories of such a flood are preserved in legends and stories in Australia, for example.

It doesn't even have to be a global flood: a big enough tsunami will suffice.

comment by VoiceOfRa · 2015-10-01T03:32:12.906Z · score: -2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

You seem to have missed the "without reason" part.

comment by TheAncientGeek · 2015-10-05T08:52:30.949Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

he second pattern is, "I have known religious people who have fallen into this fallacy, this trap, this way of reasoning poorly, and have used it to support their claims". Again, this tells me nothing about whether or not God exists; it merely tells me that some people's arguments in favour of God's existence are flawed. It means nothing. I can give you a flawed argument for the proposition that 16/64 is equal to 1/4; the fact that my argument is flawed does not make 16/64 == 1/4 false.

That's called the "fallacy fallacy", BTW.

comment by entirelyuseless · 2015-09-29T21:44:34.104Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I agree with you that Eliezer nowhere presents very strong arguments against religion, although he says some things that are relevant. Most likely he doesn't bother for the reasons given by gjm or similar reasons.

Still, that doesn't mean that there aren't any such arguments. For example, do you think that intelligent design in biology is false?

If so, consider what happens if you apply similar reasoning to the idea of revelation, i.e. that certain human claims are "truths descended from heaven".

comment by CCC · 2015-09-30T08:00:47.951Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

For example, do you think that intelligent design in biology is false?

I think that the universe was created, fourteen-and-a-bit billion years ago, with a set of natural laws so designed as to end up at a desired configuration. Exactly what that configuration is, or whether the universe has reached it yet, is a question that I cannot answer.

I strongly suspect, though there may be some element of bias in this suspicion, that the presence of intelligence is somehow important to that eventual desired configuration. I am very much not convinced that the shape of the body that that intelligence finds itself inhabiting is at all important.

I think it is highly probable that science (in general) is more right than wrong about what happened in those fourteen-and-a-bit billion years, and that the parts that are not completely right will be made more right and less wrong by future generations of scientists.

...I'm not quite sure what you mean by "intelligent design" - I have a vague idea only - but hopefully the above will answer your question.

If so, consider what happens if you apply similar reasoning to the idea of revelation, i.e. that certain human claims are "truths descended from heaven".

I think that some humans may claim revelations that they did not receive, possibly out of a desire for recognition.

comment by entirelyuseless · 2015-09-30T13:23:36.916Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

The question would by why you would give special weight to some specific claims of revelation (in particular), if you wouldn't give special weight to the claim that the bacterial flagellum (in particular) could not have evolved.

In other words, it is perfectly possible that some organs could not have evolved, and it is perfectly possible that some claims do not originate from human causes. But the problem is giving good enough reasons for accepting that in a particular case. "It looks like it couldn't have evolved," or "It looks like it didn't have human sources" are not good enough.

comment by CCC · 2015-10-05T09:25:59.552Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

...what does the bacterial flagellum have to do with anything? I think I am missing some important context here.

But the problem is giving good enough reasons for accepting that in a particular case. "It looks like it couldn't have evolved," or "It looks like it didn't have human sources" are not good enough.

Well, the simplest argument for accepting some revelations would be that later events, unknown and unknowable at the time of the revelation, were later shown to be true (for example, predicting the time and place of a volcanic eruption or other natural disaster)

comment by entirelyuseless · 2015-10-05T13:38:51.892Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Michael Behe has used the bacterial flagellum as an example of something in biology which he supposes must have been directly designed and not evolved.

I don't know of any examples of detailed predictions of the future where the 1) it is clearly established that the prediction was actually made before the thing happened; 2) it is clearly established that the thing happened as stated; 3) the thing has a substantial degree of unknowable detail. Regarding the third, I mean more detail than things like, "I will die on May 3, 2020." It would be quite surprising if this turns out to be true, but not surprising enough to prove that I have some special source of knowledge, given the total number of predictions that are made by someone or other.

Given that you can satisfy all three conditions, I agree that this would be a good reason to suppose that someone has some special source of knowledge. That won't make it easy for you to know which of his opinions are influenced by that source, unless you know exactly what the source is and how it affects his opinions in particular. So it still won't easily give you a reason to accept particular revelations.

comment by CCC · 2015-10-06T09:43:43.453Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

...a few minutes on Google suggests that biologists have by now worked out a few plausible ways in which a bacterial flagellum might have evolved. This seems reasonable to me; I assume that the biologists are competent and know their field.

I don't know of any examples of detailed predictions of the future where the 1) it is clearly established that the prediction was actually made before the thing happened; 2) it is clearly established that the thing happened as stated; 3) the thing has a substantial degree of unknowable detail.

...I can think of a few biblical examples, but given the length of time between then and now (and how much even recent eyewitness accounts can be distorted) I can also see how all those examples would probably fail on point (2) at the very least. (I think I can probably find examples that pass on points (1) and (3), at least).

comment by entirelyuseless · 2015-10-06T14:13:24.237Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Ok. But one of the main reasons biologists have considered the flagellum issue is because Behe proposed it as something that couldn't have evolved. So the point of that was that since there are basically an unlimited number of things in nature, many of them won't have been considered in detail by scientists, or at least we might not be able to personally find those considerations (if they are only available in some obscure academic journal, for example). So if I take some animal or some organ, check to see if anyone has found a plausible way that it could have evolved, and find out that, as far as I can determine, no one has done that, it would foolish to conclude that it must not have been produced by evolution.

The point of that argument was this: The number of historical events is even larger than than the number of animals and organs in biology, so it will be even more true that many such events have had no good analysis by historians. So if I take one of these events and I don't see how it could have had historical causes, and I don't find any historians giving it a historical treatment, it would be foolish to conclude that it could not have had historical causes but must have had a supernatural cause.

In both cases, in theory you could draw such a conclusion without being unreasonable, but you would need to have very strong reasons indeed. This is illustrated by the example of the difficulty of establishing that a prediction actually implies some knowledge of the future, as you conceded here.

And again, even assuming that you established such a fact, it would not be easy to know what else follows from that fact.

comment by CCC · 2015-10-07T10:51:13.601Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

So if I take some animal or some organ, check to see if anyone has found a plausible way that it could have evolved, and find out that, as far as I can determine, no one has done that, it would foolish to conclude that it must not have been produced by evolution.

Right. The absence of evidence of an evolutionary origin is not evidence of the absence of an evolutionary origin.

The point of that argument was this: The number of historical events is even larger than than the number of animals and organs in biology, so it will be even more true that many such events have had no good analysis by historians. So if I take one of these events and I don't see how it could have had historical causes, and I don't find any historians giving it a historical treatment, it would be foolish to conclude that it could not have had historical causes but must have had a supernatural cause.

Fair enough. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

So, in short, you're suggesting that any claim of a divine origin for any historical event actually needs to be accompanied by at least some evidence suggesting a divine origin, and not merely a lack of evidence suggesting a mundane one?

That seems reasonable to me.

comment by entirelyuseless · 2015-10-07T13:09:29.245Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I would agree with "at least some evidence," but I also said, "very strong reasons indeed."

Basically, we already have good evidence for this: "In many cases, some event appears to have meaningful evidence of a supernatural origin, but in fact it had natural historical causes." Thus, unless you happen to be a Mormon, you probably believe that Joseph Smith's religion had basically natural historical causes, despite the testimony of his witnesses that they saw the golden plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated (which presumably he would have a hard time coming up with naturally.) So there is some evidence of a supernatural origin there, but most people don't think it had a supernatural origin anyway. The corresponding behavior in other cases would be to ask for pretty strong evidence (not just some) before you accept a claim like that.

comment by CCC · 2015-10-08T09:05:28.654Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

As it happens, I am not a Mormon and I know virtually nothing about Joseph Smith. I shall simply class this whole golden plates business (about which I know nothing more than what you put in your comment) as "unknown, unclassified" until such time as I find out more. I would move it to neither the "natural historical causes" category nor the "divine causes" category until such time as I have sufficient evidence that suggests which category it should be in.

...you and I probably have different thresholds for "sufficient evidence".

comment by gjm · 2015-10-05T13:32:33.811Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

"The" bacterial flagellum (actually there are different kinds and I think only one kind is relevant here) was a leading example used by proponents of "intelligent design", who claimed it was a complex system that couldn't possibly have evolved incrementally.

comment by CCC · 2015-10-06T09:45:17.883Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks. A brief googling suggests that biologists have figured out how it could have evolved from similar organs with different functions, which seems to neatly solve the issue.

comment by entirelyuseless · 2015-09-29T12:49:17.595Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

It would actually be pretty easy to transform all of the anti-religious material into e.g. anti-ufos as aliens material. Or if it would sound silly to constantly bring up the same example, alternate between similar cases.

comment by gjm · 2015-09-29T13:29:19.059Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I'm not so sure. Some of the anti-religious stuff is specifically concerned with Eliezer's upbringing, and so far as I know he wasn't brought up to believe aliens are visiting earth. Some of it is concerned with the fact that religious belief is widespread among (otherwise) reasonable people, which isn't so true of UFO theories. I would guess that most of what could be replaced with material about UFOs could about equally well just be removed; it's the rest that's difficult.

comment by entirelyuseless · 2015-09-29T13:57:21.058Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

You're probably right about the personal material, although I suspect you could make the theoretical points in another way. But it wouldn't be a matter of easily substituting one thing for another.

One could make the points about religious beliefs relative to rationality without directly asserting that all religious beliefs are false, simply because it is obvious for simple logical reasons that the majority of such beliefs are false (because opposed religious beliefs cannot both be true), and even religious people will grant that this is the case. And the majority of such beliefs being false means that if you actually want to know the truth, you need to take a lot more care about such things than most people do, whether or not any religious beliefs are actually true.

The same general point is actually true about anti-religious beliefs as well, and this may be one reason why that wouldn't be a book Eliezer could have written. For example, he said that he would rather push a button that would destroy the world if God exists, than a button that had a known probability of one in a billion of destroying the world.

It seems to me more reasonable to believe that Mohammed or Joseph Smith was a prophet from God, than to push that "destroy the world if God exists" button. In other words, Eliezer's personal beliefs are unreasonable in a similar way, just in an opposite direction.

comment by gjm · 2015-09-29T14:14:27.363Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I suspect (but don't know) that a lot of religious people would be almost as upset at "most religious claims are false" as "your specific religious claims are false" even though, as you say, the former is almost a triviality. I also suspect that many would fall back on claims along the following lines: "Yes, superficially my beliefs and my Muslim neighbour's beliefs contradict one another. But we are fully agreed on the existence of God, and perhaps we are just seeing the same thing from different angles." -- and then they would not be willing to agree that most people's beliefs on religious topics are wrong.

I think I agree with you rather than Eliezer on the probability-of-God question, but the answer might well depend a lot on what range of possibilities we count as making "God exists" true.

comment by entirelyuseless · 2015-09-30T15:06:56.887Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I don't think I've heard this particular response within my social circle, but I wouldn't be too surprised to hear it from others. And in any case I do hear things which amount to, "That may be technically true, but saying it is suggesting that my religion is likely false, and implying that is really bad."

In that sense I agree that religious beliefs tend to make people have a hard time even with general abstract truths about rationality, at least as soon as they realize the implications for their beliefs.

comment by Zubon · 2015-09-03T03:19:09.401Z · score: 1 (5 votes) · LW · GW

People condition on information that isn’t true.

Andrew Gelman, "The belief was so strong that it trumped the evidence before them."

comment by [deleted] · 2015-09-07T20:08:00.509Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Of course, a good hierarchical Bayes reasoner is going to use huge amounts of prior information against small amounts of countervailing evidence. Do you start believing in ghosts every time someone puts on a white sheet and jumps out at you?

comment by Zubon · 2015-09-11T12:25:56.657Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Did you mean to reply to a different post? That doesn't seem relevant to either the quote or the source article. A better metaphor here would be not believing in linens when someone puts on a white sheet and jumps out at you.

comment by username2 · 2015-09-11T19:16:10.843Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Well, if you see something ghost-like, that's a weak evidence in favor of existence of ghosts. But it's a weak evidence, it doesn't trump everything else we know about the world.

comment by Luke_A_Somers · 2015-09-25T18:51:49.883Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

On the other hand, in this case, it was more that they didn't check, than that they didn't believe the evidence.

comment by Zubon · 2015-09-25T12:29:31.469Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I am not saying we should discard our intuitions about relative outrage, but we ought to look at them more closely rather than just riding them to a quick conclusion.

Tyler Cowen, "Just How Guilty Is Volkswagon?"

comment by Luke_A_Somers · 2015-09-25T18:58:19.929Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

For reference, the notions of relative outrage are between deliberate and accidental harm, and in particular that as the magnitude of the problem grows, it makes less and less difference.

Also, how does a post with 0 votes end up lower on the page under the 'best' criterion than a post at -8 points????

comment by WalterL · 2015-09-02T17:59:00.831Z · score: -1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Edit: Gah, missed that this was a dupe of 2013. Felt so original too...

comment by Lumifer · 2015-09-02T18:17:14.162Z · score: -1 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Dupe.

comment by James_Miller · 2015-09-03T00:37:41.667Z · score: -4 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Try posting it again next month.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-09-19T02:28:36.127Z · score: -2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

investors (index funds, diversified mutual funds, whatever) who own shares in multiple companies in the same industry cause those companies to compete with each other less vigorously. These investors want to maximize the profits of the industry, not the individual firm, and fierce competition is not in their interests. So -- the theory goes -- managers increasingly manage in the interests of those investors, leading to less competition, higher prices for consumers and a host of other problems. Posner and Weyl blame institutional investors for income inequality. Elhauge blames them for runaway executive pay, and for the rise in corporate profits unaccompanied by economic growth and investment.

None of this has much to do with voting. Shareholder voting just isn't very important; it's not like shareholders get to vote on airline ticket prices or route decisions. If you think that institutional investors are causing managers to stop competing, there are more plausible mechanisms for that than voting. Just leaving managers alone, for instance, probably itself tends toward anti-competitiveness: If shareholders don't pester management, they will probably compete less hard, just because that is easier. "Voting with their feet" is another: If shareholders invest indifferently in both the best and the fourth-best firm in an industry, that will keep up the fourth-best firm's stock price and lower the best's, reducing incentives to be the best. Or there is just fiduciary duty: Managers may want to do what's in their shareholders' best interests because that is what they are supposed to be doing. Even if the shareholders don't actively force them to.

...

Should companies be managed as a self-contained unit, maximizing the value of their own shares for their shareholders? Or should they be managed as part of a marketplace influenced by modern portfolio theory, maximizing the value of their -- mostly diversified -- shareholders' overall investments?

More abstractly, this is a fight over how to conceive of corporate capitalism. The old-fashioned way of thinking is organized around distinct companies. Company X is its own thing; its managers should dislike the managers of Company Y, its workers should dislike the workers of Company Y, its consumers should dislike the products of Company Y and its shareholders should dislike the shareholders of Company Y. And all of them should like each other: They're all in it together, down at Company X, against the world.

The modern way of thinking abstracts shareholders away from their companies : Company X isn't Company X, it's just a beta, a collection of risk factors that deserve a certain weight in your portfolio. Shareholders have no emotional connection to any particular company. They follow investing best practices, seeking diversification and shareholder-friendly governance and efficient capital allocation and maximum risk-adjusted return. And by abandoning individual companies, shareholders attain a certain class consciousness, pushing all companies to do what is right for the shareholder class, rather than pushing each company to do what is right for itself. This is the dominant line of thinking in modern finance. You can see why some people find it scary.

Now, for myself, I wouldn't ban index funds. Most of my money is in index funds. I am willing to believe that sometimes managers act anticompetitively because they think it's in shareholders' best interests, but the evidence of the magnitude of the problem seems a bit thin, and I think that the well-established benefits of diversification outweigh the still uncertain costs.

Index Funds, first posted by Lumifer (thanks)

comment by [deleted] · 2015-09-20T05:38:50.011Z · score: -4 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Attribution biases are present in everyday life, and therefore are an important and relevant topic to study. For example, when a driver cuts us off, we are more likely to attribute blame to the reckless driver (e.g., “What a jerk!”), rather than situational circumstances (e.g., “Maybe they were in a rush and didn’t notice me"). Additionally, there are many different types of attribution biases, such as the ultimate attribution error, fundamental attribution error, actor-observer bias, and hostile attribution bias. Each of these biases describes a specific tendency that people exhibit when reasoning about the cause of different behaviors.

...

The fundamental attribution error refers to a bias in explaining others' behaviors. According to this error, when we make attributions about another person's actions, we are likely to overemphasize the role of dispositional factors, while minimizing the influence of situational factors.[26] For example, if we see a coworker bump into someone on his way to a meeting, we are more likely to explain this behavior in terms of our coworker's carelessness or hastiness, rather than considering that he was running late to a meeting.

...

Hostile attribution bias (HAB) has been defined as an interpretive bias wherein individuals exhibit a tendency to interpret others' ambiguous behaviors as hostile, rather than benign.[8][9] For example, if a child witnesses two other children whispering and assumes they are talking about him/her, that child makes an attribution of hostile intent, even though the other children’s behavior was potentially benign. Research has indicated that there is an association between hostile attribution bias and aggression, such that people who are more likely to interpret someone else's behavior as hostile are also more likely to engage in aggressive behavior.[32][33] See the following section on aggression for more details on this association. See also: Ideas of reference and delusions of reference

wiki attribution bias

comment by [deleted] · 2015-09-14T11:46:12.612Z · score: -4 (10 votes) · LW · GW

"Niggas talk about change and working within the system to achieve that. The problem with always being a conformist is that when you try to change the system from within, it's not you who changes the system; it's the system that will eventually change you."

-Immortal Technique, The Poverty of Philosophy lyrics and song

comment by skeptical_lurker · 2015-09-15T20:21:13.095Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

And what positive change has rap music accomplished?

comment by [deleted] · 2015-09-15T01:35:20.871Z · score: 0 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Haha, I don't know why you keep getting downvoted dude, but this is another good quote.

comment by hairyfigment · 2015-09-15T01:45:14.448Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

No, it isn't. The most obvious meaning is plainly false; we can steel-man it into something not blatantly wrong, but the new statement still wouldn't warrant this level of certainty.

ETA, from this memo to President Truman laying out the strategy which let him defeat Dewey after all:

The truth is that the old "party organization" control is gone forever. Better education, the rise of the mass pressure group, the economic depression of the 30's, the growth of government functions -- all these have contributed to the downfall of the organization." Tammany, Hague, Kelley and the rest of the straight party leaders, while still important, are no longer omnipotent, no longer able to determine the issues. For practical political purposes, they are moribund; they cannot be relied on to do the job alone.

They have been supplanted in large measure by the pressure groups. In these pressure groups are the farmers, still traditionally Republican, and organized labor which became "traditionally Democratic" under Roosevelt. Another loosely organized group are the progressives who followed Roosevelt for four elections but are increasingly restive under President Truman, mostly because of the reactionary domination exercised over the Democratic Party by the Congressional Southerners who, although a minority of the Democratic party, are a majority of the Party-in-Congress and are assuming control of the Party organization councils. And also among these groups are the racial groups who have learned to use the vote as an economic weapon and who can no longer be satisfied with a Tammany turkey on Thanksgiving.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-09-15T03:55:56.362Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I mean, the steelman would be to say that this is a rap song that gets off on clever phrases, but it obviously isn't supposed to be completely certain, it's just a good mental model to keep in mind.

comment by ChristianKl · 2015-09-17T11:48:29.640Z · score: -6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

For the first time I learned about the Tibetan Buddhist view of emotion, a very different perspective from that which we hold in the West. I was amazed to find that the ideas I had been writing about in chapters 2 and 3 were compatible with the Buddhist view, in part, and the Buddhist view suggested extensions and refinements of my ideas that led me extensively. Most of all, I learned from His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, on many different levels, from the experiential to the intellectual, and I believe the book has benefited from my learning.

Paul Ekman in Emotions Revealed

comment by 50lbsofstorkmeat · 2015-09-25T14:21:11.102Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

A quote from Paul Ekman saying that both he and the Dalai Lama have similar ideas about emotions does little good if noone specifies what those ideas are.

comment by ChristianKl · 2015-09-26T19:14:06.685Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Paul Ekman is famous for having shown that certain basic emotions come with culture independent physiological signs and he's among the 100 most cited psychologists.

I do think that it's significant that a major psychologiss who researches emotions comes to very similar nontrival results as Buddhists.

I don't think his idea of emotions is well summarized by a single quote.

comment by dvasya · 2015-09-02T16:48:41.122Z · score: -9 (13 votes) · LW · GW

The main problem with quotes found on the Internet is that everyone immediately believes their authenticity.

-- Vladimir I. Lenin

comment by [deleted] · 2015-09-18T15:54:02.582Z · score: -12 (14 votes) · LW · GW

Gay Shame was created as a protest of (and named in opposition to) the overcommercialization of the gay pride events. Members attack "queer assimilation" in what they perceive as oppressive societal structures

gay shame

comment by satt · 2015-09-19T13:20:16.798Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I don't see the rationality-relevant aspect of that quotation...