Requesting advice

post by Carinthium · 2011-05-27T10:12:36.305Z · LW · GW · Legacy · 16 comments

I've noticed during my thoughts on the issue that I seem to be biased against Christianity- although raised in a Christian household, I have noticed that I become more tense when reading effective arguments for Christianity and more relaxed when reading good arguments against it- I also feel strongly tempted to pull out books which I know give good arguments against Christianity.

I thought the issue of whether Christianity was actually true concluded- but given that I am now aware I'm biased, it's difficult to be sure. On the one hand, there is a lot of evidence against it (biblical contradictions etc...). On the other, there are some pieces of evidence that appear false 'on the surface' but which seem plausible when I take my bias into account.


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comment by Vladimir_Nesov · 2011-05-27T20:55:13.823Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"Requesting advice" is a bad title for a post.

comment by gjm · 2011-05-27T23:25:28.401Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

(The following is very long. Executive summary: It sounds as if you're worried that you haven't looked fairly enough at Christianity, and also that doing so would be dangerous. I propose that you should give it a fair look, taking appropriate precautions. Doing so will entitle you to dismiss such worries in future, whether they're raised by you or anyone else, unless they're accompanied by actual impressive new evidence.)

At least part of the cause of that feeling of tension is that you (or some part of you) worry that you haven't given Christianity a fair examination. So, give it a fair examination. Go out of your way to be generous. (You could ask Christian friends or family what they consider the best reasons for accepting Christianity, for instance.)

Another part of the cause is probably the opposite: a worry that if you do give it a fair examination then you may find it convincing even though you shouldn't, and you don't want your brain subverted by dangerous memes. So, from the outset, adopt some sensible rules to help avoid this: e.g., decide not to accept any argument that isn't made clear and explicit; alternate between considering evidence on one side and considering evidence on the other; pay attention to your emotional reactions and take special care when they don't match the actual evidence and arguments presented; when presented with a confident-looking claim that you're asked to take on trust, do what you can to check it.

Then, just do it. List the best reasons you can find each way. Evaluate them. Quantify. ("Such-and-such evidence seems about twice as likely if Christianity is right as if atheism is, so that's 2:1 evidence for Christianity.") See how the evidence accumulates. Consider what a reasonable prior position should be, on the basis of whatever non-evidential considerations you can think of. (E.g., Christianity is a rather specific set of claims: not only was the world made by an intelligent agent, but that agent has a particular rather odd internal structure; it has particular likes and dislikes; it engaged in a particular sort of interaction with the world about 2000 years ago; etc., etc., etc.; you may consider all that, as I do, grounds for reckoning Christianity much less likely a priori than atheism.)

As you go along, notice when something makes you tense or excited or whatever. Consider what internal biases might be at play. Go out of your way to disarm them. ("I think I'm afraid that this book will be irrationally convincing to me, so I feel worried at the thought of reading it. Therefore, I shall read it -- to make sure that my activities aren't controlled by fear -- but as I go through I shall pay attention to what it's doing to my emotions, and consider carefully whether it's offering good reasons to justify the responses it's seeking to evoke. If I find my emotional responses out of step with my reasoned judgement, I shall put the book aside for a while and read something with a different tendency so as to avoid being manipulated. None the less, I shall read the whole thing and give fair consideration to whatever actual evidence and arguments it offers. But if it turns out to be manipulative and unsound, I shall not feel obliged in the future to pay attention to other things along the same lines: fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me." Or whatever.)

What I predict you'll find (on the basis that it's what I found when I did a similar exercise, but starting from a Christian position): lots of arguments that have basically no force at all, lots of things that turn out to be rather weak evidence one way or the other, and a few things that very strongly favour atheism over Christianity. (One example of each, in order: The so-called ontological argument consists entirely of holes. -- Christians often claim that there's really good evidence for the resurrection of Jesus; that evidence turns out all to depend on the New Testament documents -- a small number of documents, written by partisans, decades after the events, with substantial disagreements between one another and also clear signs of non-independence -- and making them look like good evidence for the resurrection requires you to assume that individual details in them are very unlikely to be incorrect, despite the aforementioned disagreements. If you're very generous you might end up reckoning that this evidence is 2:1 in favour of Christianity. -- The Bible is much, much less impressive than it "should" be if any robust version of Christianity is correct; it's full of unfulfilled prophecies, divine actions grossly inconsistent with the moral principles Christians claim to espouse, internal contradictions, rather mediocre poetry, etc., and the fact that it contains occasional bits of beautiful writing and psychological insight is hardly a surprise; it seems to me a couple of orders of magnitude more likely that it'd be this way on atheist assumptions than on Christian ones.)

Of course, my prediction could be wrong. You might even find that after considering the evidence available to you, your posterior probabilities strongly favour Christianity. In that case, you should become a Christian. (What Eliezer calls the "Litany of Tarski": If there is a God, I desire to believe that there is a God. If there is no God, I desire to believe that there is no God. Etc.) Much more likely, you'll find that the evidence strongly disfavours Christianity. In any case, you'll be much less vulnerable to future accusations from others, or from parts of yourself, that your position is the result of bias and intellectual dishonesty.

The downside of all this is that it may take a lot of time and effort. But it also saves time and effort later: if someone comes along and says "Hey, have you considered the claims of Christianity?" (or, as the case may be, atheism) then you're entitled to say "Yes, thanks, very thoroughly; do you have anything genuinely new to offer?" -- which they almost certainly won't.

Depending on what you've already given careful consideration to, you may be able to save much of that time and effort if you begin by considering carefully what evidence and arguments you've already evaluated, and what probability estimate they justify for Christianity vis-a-vis atheism, and then considering much more briefly what you haven't looked at yet, and how much evidence it could possibly provide in the best/worst case. You may then be able to say: In order to justify taking Christianity seriously enough to look at it in depth, I'd need such-and-such an amount more evidence for it; the only thing I can see that has any prospect of offering that much evidence is X; so I'll take a look at X, and if it turns out to be no good then I can ignore the rest with a clear conscience.

comment by rysade · 2011-05-29T00:06:15.094Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for the well written reply on this subject. I have a little trouble figuring out if my own experience matches this process or not. I have gone over Christian claims in the past, but they were all in the distant past. Do you think it would makes sense to go through it all again, now that I've got some more tools for evaluating claims?

comment by AdeleneDawner · 2011-05-29T13:48:26.649Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I agree with gjm's advice, but also want to note that if that doesn't work, you might want to consider the theory that the situation in general is not about Christianity at all, but is a more social/psychological issue. Taking a stand on a controversial issue is risky, high status behavior, and most of us have both instinct and socialization pressuring us not to do it, so it's not really surprising that you're having a bit of extra resistance to the idea - if you keep the option of reevaluating the issue open, you'll experience less dissonance and be more convincing if you end up saying 'well, I don't know' in the future. More importantly, it probably feels like if you do the research and pin it down - and admit that you've pinned it down, even to yourself - you might wind up in confrontations over it later.

It might help to specifically consider the fact that even if you do come to a strong conclusion about Christianity and atheism, you can still generally avoid the issue in most social situations. You don't have to go out and convert people, or even talk about it if you don't want to in most cases.

comment by Carinthium · 2011-05-29T21:03:11.374Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

When I changed my mind the first time, I didn't tell anyone but started covering up a lot of behaviours that a Christian wouldn't accept. If I re-converted, I'd have to tell people.

comment by AdeleneDawner · 2011-05-29T21:16:45.034Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's been a while since this has been relevant enough to me for me to think about, but isn't it possible to be Christian without e.g. joining a church? Maybe not comfortable, but possible at least.

comment by Carinthium · 2011-05-29T21:27:04.593Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's easily possible and in a way intellectually consistent, but if the truth is as I'm worried it's going to end up, intellectually consistent in about the same sense that believing one has a heart disease and not doing anything about it is intellectually consistent.

comment by rysade · 2011-05-29T17:20:19.180Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thank you both, that's some pretty clear advice. I do think that there are benefits to avoiding the topic in public, but there are very tangible benefits to deciding, finally, for yourself, that one or the other is true.

It also makes it clear to me that there are an awful lot of claims that come along with Christianity. It doesn't all just follow from god as theorems in mathematics follow from axioms. I guess what I was trying to ask is if there was a case for reevaluating 'god.' You needn't answer, however, as I think I've got a handle on this.

comment by gjm · 2011-05-29T10:16:49.325Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Well, the main point is to satisfy whatever bits of your brain think the matter isn't really settled for you -- that you either might or should re-evaluate some of those claims if exposed to them. (Assuming I'm right in guessing that there are some bits of your brain that think that, and that that's why you feel the way you do.)

So the question is probably what makes sense to you. Maybe you should try to identify one particular Christian claim or argument or piece of alleged evidence, one that triggers those avoidance reactions more than most, give it a good examination, and see (1) what you conclude about it and (2) what effect, if any, this has on your feelings about pro-Christian and anti-Christian arguments generally.

If you do this, you might want to make sure your brain is well informed in advance that coming to a particular conclusion on this point alone doesn't commit you to any particular position overall. (Which it doesn't, unless the rest of the evidence seems very finely balanced to you.) Because otherwise some bits of you might be worrying that other bits of you will be biased in how they look at the issue for fear of reaching the "wrong" conclusion.

If you do this, what to do next probably depends on the outcome -- both in terms of any ensuing adjustments to your beliefs (Christianity more/less probable than before) and in terms of any effects on your feelings (more/less/different "ugh" feelings when you contemplate Christian propaganda).

comment by fubarobfusco · 2011-05-27T18:07:35.084Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

A couple of thoughts on this ...

Christianity, or any other religion, is not only a set of beliefs (the sort of things that could be "true" or "false"); it's also a set of social practices, stories, etc. Whether the social practices are useful or pleasant, or those stories interesting or thought-provoking, is not necessarily controlled by whether the beliefs are true or false.

(In other words: A lot of people go to church who don't believe in Jesus. And a lot of people like Bach or Handel who don't believe in Jesus.)

However, sticking to the notion of Christianity as beliefs ... I wonder if it is possible to dissolve the question in a way that is both comfortable and accurate.

What exactly would it mean for Christianity to be true? There are a lot of words that Christians use to talk about their beliefs, such as "salvation": what does "salvation" mean, and what would it actually say about the universe if salvation existed?

For instance: if "I am saved" means "my soul will go to heaven when I die", that would imply the existence of heaven; the existence of souls; also continuity of personality between a living person and a soul in heaven. Do we have evidence that these things exist? What would count as evidence for them?

If we were to accept the Bible or other writings as evidence, what distinguishes those writings from other writings that we are not giving the same evidentiary status? Why accept the Bible and reject the Talmud, the Qur'an, the Tripitaka, or the Guru Granth Sahib? Are we prepared to assert that the historical path by which the Bible came to us (including translation, error-prone recopying, political battles amongst bishops, and exclusion of the Apocrypha and other works) is preserving of evidentiary status?

(Some Christians assert that they believe the Bible because they were raised to do so; agreeing that if they had been born in Nepal they would be Buddhists. Is this a form of availability heuristic? If you recognize that an equally rational person, with the same human universals as priors, who happened to receive different data due to a different upbringing, would come to different beliefs, does that trigger Aumann's Agreement Theorem?)

By what means do Christians arrive at their beliefs? For what purposes do they present arguments in favor of those beliefs (the arguments that make you tense)? Do these purposes appear to attract truth, or are they better explained as one of the non-truth-seeking social practices that also make up part of religion? If preaching is not truth-seeking, perhaps it is a sort of poetry or music. If the conversion experience is not about truth, perhaps it is about membership and belonging. (Do Christians try to convert you because they know something that they would benefit from your knowing as well? Or just because they want to give you a big hug?)

comment by Document · 2011-05-28T09:41:18.474Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I wonder if there should be a name for something like "bias paranoia bias".

comment by Document · 2011-06-01T21:58:09.981Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Followup: maybe I'm thinking of this.

comment by virtualAdept · 2011-05-27T14:02:34.460Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I have noticed that I become more tense when reading effective arguments for Christianity and more relaxed when reading good arguments against it

What do you consider an effective argument for Christianity, and what sorts of thoughts do you find yourself thinking when you encounter such an argument? It might be useful to write them down.

comment by Bobertron · 2011-05-27T11:08:23.272Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I assume you currently believe Christianity to be false. Your problem sounds like confirmation bias. It's actually great that you notice it! Do you know the lintanys of Tarski and Gendlin? I'd say they are quite popular around here. They generally help me to reduce that negative gut reaction when I'm contemplating the possibility of being wrong.

If you used to believe in Christianity you most likely were biased in favour of it, but still changed your mind. The bias from back then and the bias from now should cancel each other out to some degree.

comment by Carinthium · 2011-05-27T12:02:23.385Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I've done some reading on this site (nowhere near enough, judging from my current situation)- the question is what methods I should use to account for bias problems when dealing with factual questions related to Christianity.

comment by Bobertron · 2011-05-27T13:37:43.554Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Well, you only said that you feel tense and tempted. While that can lead to wishful thinking, as long as you don't act on it you are not technically biased.

If you want to deal with those gut-feelings, there are the mentioned litanys. I think most of How To Actually Change Your Mind would be relevant. What it says about politics is true about religion, too.

I'd say, don't ask (or, rather, focus on) if you are biased. If you think you are biased and you try to compensate, you might end up overcompensating. Or you were wrong about being biased. This kind of thinking could lead to a lot of useless confusion. Just ask whether a factual claim is true (or not) and why is it true (or not). "Because it feels right" is not a good reason to believe something, but neither is "because it feels wrong and I have to compensate"

Of course, it would be ideal to completely ignore what position an argument supports and just judge it on whether or not it is factually correct. A lot of the rest of the sequences are relevant here. Just let me quote the wiki:

Map and Territory contains some of the most important introductory posts and essays.

If you don't read the sequences on Mysterious Answers to Mysterious Questions and Reductionism, nothing else >on Less Wrong will make much sense.

The most important method that Less Wrong can offer you is How To Actually Change Your Mind.

But I'm not actually convinced that you have any problem.

I thought the issue of whether Christianity was actually true concluded- but given that I am now aware I'm biased, it's difficult to be sure.

As I said before. I might be wrong about you, but I would guess the following: When you changed your mind you were biased against changing your mind. Therefore, your current position is not the result of a bias at all, but rather of even more evidence than a perfectly rational person would need.

Also, I'd like to recommend Twelve Virtues of Rationality. Mostly just because I like it a lot ;) and it's rather general. Looking at your comments you seem to like HP:MoR? If you like Eliezers style, you might like the virtues.