The Amazing Virgin Pregnancy

post by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2007-12-24T14:00:00.000Z · score: 25 (47 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 272 comments

People who grow up believing certain things,
even if they later stop believing them,
may not quite realize how the beliefs sound to outsiders...

(SCENE:  A small cottage in Nazareth.)

Joseph:  Mary, my dearest fiancée, there's something I've been meaning to talk to you about.

(Mary's shoulders slump.  Slowly, as if under a heavy burden, she turns around to face Joseph.)

Joseph:  You seem to be getting fat around the waistline, and throwing up in the morning, and, er, not getting any periods.  Which is odd, because it's sort of like -

Mary:  Yes!  I'm pregnant!  All right?  I'm PREGNANT!

Joseph:  How is that possible?

(Mary's shoulders slump further.)  Mary:  How do you think?

Joseph:  I don't know, that's why I'm asking you.  I mean, you're still a virgin, right?

(Mary looks up cautiously, and sees Joseph's face looking blankly puzzled.)

Joseph:  Well?

Mary:  God did it.

Joseph:  You had sex with -

Mary:  No!  Haha.  Of course not.  I mean, God just snapped his fingers and did one of those miracle things and made me pregnant.

Joseph:  God made you pregnant.

Mary:  (Starts to sweat.)  Yes.

Joseph:  Mary, that is just so... completely...

(Mary's eyes squeeze shut.)

Joseph:  ...COOL!

(Mary opens her eyes again, cautiously.)

Mary:  You think so?

Joseph:  Of course!  Who wouldn't think so?  Come on, we've got to tell everyone the news!

Mary:  Maybe we should keep this between just the two of us -

Joseph:  No, no, silly girl, this is way too important!  Come on!

(Joseph grabs Mary's wrist and drags her out of the house. SCENE:  The gathering square of Nazareth.  A dozen well-dressed men, and the town's head rabbi, look on Joseph and Mary impatiently.)

Rabbi:  What's this all about, Joseph?  I trust there's a good reason for the fuss?

Joseph:  Go ahead, Mary!  Tell them what you told me.

Mary:  Um...  (She swallows.)  God made me pregnant.

Rabbi, looking stern, yet understanding:  Now, Joseph, you know you're not supposed to do that before -

Joseph:  No, no, you don't get it!  She's still a virgin!  God made her pregnant directly!

(There's a long pause.)

Man #1:  So, what you're saying here, basically, is that Mary tells you she's a virgin.

Joseph:  Uh huh!

Man #2:  And you haven't had sex with her.

Joseph:  Uh huh!

Man #3:  And now she's pregnant.

Joseph:  Precisely!

Man #4:  So you think that God did it.

Joseph:  What other explanation could there be?

Rabbi:  Joseph, that is just so... unbelievably...

(Mary holds her breath.)

Rabbi:  NEAT!

(Mary exhales.)

Man #5:  A miracle!  A miracle right here in Nazareth!

Man #6:  Wow!  I thought that miracles only happened in Jerusalem!

Man #7:  Come on!  Let's spread the good news!

(They depart.  SCENE:  Mary is alone with her friend, Betty, in Betty's house.)

Betty:  "God did it."

Mary:  I panicked!  It was all I could think of!

Betty:  So who's the real -

(Mary lifts an eyebrow significantly.  There's a brief pause.)

Betty:  Ah.  So that's why the rabbi went along with it.

Mary:  Well, he thinks he's the father, anyway.  Why, does it matter?

Betty:  It puts some things in a different light.

Mary:  Like what? 

Betty:  The rabbi has been telling all the pretty young girls that you, Mary, are the ultimate embodiment of feminine virtue, and when they grow up, they should be just like you -

Mary:  I just feel so awful about the whole mess.  What kind of thing is this to have hanging over my child's life?

Betty:  You've got to put things in perspective, dearie.  You told one little white lie.  It's not as if you caused the fall of the Roman Empire.

Mary:  But what if the Romans hear about it?  I don't want my baby to end up being crucified!

Betty:  No one's going to obsess about it that long.  In a couple of months this whole thing will blow over.

Mary:  I hope you're right...

(Exeunt Omnes.)

272 comments

Comments sorted by oldest first, as this post is from before comment nesting was available (around 2009-02-27).

comment by RobinHanson · 2007-12-24T14:18:40.000Z · score: 35 (35 votes) · LW · GW

The crazier a thing you believe as a result of trusting your community, the stronger a tie to your community that shows. So when we signal loyalty via beliefs, those beliefs can get pretty crazy.

comment by Eric3 · 2007-12-24T15:19:57.000Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Very funny.

But even if god did get Mary pregnant, given my bayesian priors on seeing such miracles (I have seen none, nor do I know anyone who so it), I would have to be skeptical. Would it be too much to ask god to merely make one conspicuous miracle every generation or so, in a conspicuous place, so we could be sure? Then I would follow his rules more meticulously (eg, about not shaving, swearing).

comment by LemmusLemmus · 2007-12-24T16:13:47.000Z · score: -7 (35 votes) · LW · GW

Elizer,

agnostics don't come any more hardcore than me, but it seems you really have an emotional issue with religious people. A post that suggests that Mary was a slut is really, really puerile.

comment by Richard_Hollerith2 · 2007-12-24T16:18:38.000Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I want to expand on Robin's comment. Some have hypothesized that promoting crazy beliefs helps a ruling coalition keep hold of power because the coalition's repressive efforts can be concentrated on the fraction of the population that shows signs of not believing the crazy beliefs. In other words, they can stay in power by cracking down on those who won't get with the program.

comment by Nigel_Mellish3 · 2007-12-24T16:52:41.000Z · score: -5 (15 votes) · LW · GW

Ditto LemmusLemmus.

I can forgive the dramatic over-generalizations and inaccuracies regarding Buddhism and Christianity in past posts as I (and hopefully others) don't come here pretending Eliezer is an expert on religion, but it would be nice to raise the level of discourse to something north of Digg or Slashdot. It is my hope that those attempting to evangelize the "Way" of Bayesian could operate in a more refined or civilized manner, one befitting the label "rational".

comment by SkyDK · 2012-03-24T14:19:53.298Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Suggestion: Help along

comment by billswift · 2007-12-24T16:55:41.000Z · score: 15 (15 votes) · LW · GW

Maybe it is "puerile", but it is also much more likely than the common belief.

comment by Raw_Power · 2010-12-26T22:17:42.461Z · score: 9 (13 votes) · LW · GW

In a relative sense, yes, but in an absolute sense, it's still more probable that the woman had a reputation for virtue, which actual virtue makes more likely. She didn't need to be a slut, the rabbi was more than sufficient, although it needen't be him, Josef himslef is even more likely. The "He think's he's the father" line was unnecessary.

comment by SkyDK · 2012-03-24T14:19:09.826Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Not at all; discretion, social manipulation and control should do the trick. Powerful alliances would be better as well.

Why? Well; sinful behaviour+ discretion+ political capital has a higher probability of leading to a good reputation than good behaviour and bad political standing.

comment by Kip · 2007-12-24T16:59:14.000Z · score: 0 (4 votes) · LW · GW

LOL

comment by Recovering_irrationalist · 2007-12-24T17:07:21.000Z · score: 26 (26 votes) · LW · GW

Eliezer: Hindsight bias? No crazier to believe at the time than many truths.

Hey Betty, your disease was given to you by countless little flying monsters, as many as the sands in the desert, but no one can see them. And they make babies by tearing themselves in half. Most of your ancestors were like that.

comment by LemmusLemmus · 2007-12-24T17:36:11.000Z · score: 0 (10 votes) · LW · GW

"Maybe it is "puerile", but it is also much more likely than the common belief."

I agree it is more likely and that "virgin birth" is a silly belief, but that's not the point. Elizer comes across like a fifteen-year-old who has just discovered the joys of provocation.

comment by Doug_S. · 2007-12-24T17:50:23.000Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

The books composing the New Testament were written many years after the events they describe, so the whole "virgin birth" story may have been made up long after Joseph and Mary were no longer around to contradict it.

comment by ScentOfViolets · 2007-12-24T18:07:13.000Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

This may be the stuff of urban legend, but . . . wasn't this just an issue of mistranslation? I had heard that the Hebrew word (or whatever the extant language was) for 'young woman' or 'young bride' had picked up some virginal baggage before making it into the Canon. Is there any basis to this version of events?

comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2007-12-24T19:06:34.000Z · score: 29 (31 votes) · LW · GW

ScentOfViolets: Yes, the Greeks mistranslated "young woman" to "virgin" in the Septuagint. Standard story.

LemmusLemmus: I was never a Christian, so I don't bear the same deep abiding grudge that I do against Judaism for alienating my family from me.

But why should I be more fond of religion than of any other massively self-destructive folly?

And if you're shocked by my blaspheming the Virgin Mary, you may have some traces of reverence left that you need to get rid of. I mean seriously, think about the storyline here. Alleged virgin. Pregnant. "God did it."

The way this post got started was that I was talking to a friend recently who had been exposed to an attempted conversion by Scientology, and he was shaking his head in wonder. And then he said, "I don't understand how Scientology converts anyone, it's so ridiculous. At least the Christian religion has a powerful story. You can see how people would be converted by that."

I said to him, "I don't see that one story is any less ridiculous than the other. You're an atheist now, but you were raised as a Christian, right? You grew up being told about Christian beliefs, but not Scientologist beliefs. You may not realize how the Christian story sounds if you're not raised thinking it's normal. I mean, consider the Virgin Mary -"

comment by HBDfan · 2015-07-12T23:06:51.243Z · score: 0 (4 votes) · LW · GW

This explains the post well.

comment by ScentOfViolets · 2007-12-24T19:38:06.000Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Thank you - that's exactly what I've heard, but I didn't want to get lost in quibbling over the details. Since we are in agreement then, why post this story? Given the existence of Jesus (one can argue persuasively that there is not sufficient historical evidence that such a creature ever existed), this story would never have happened, would have been, well, silly. If it's about the priors of committed Christians, it doesn't work - a god that can create an entire universe in seven days just to lavish attention and affection upon the peoples of a certain small globe certainly wouldn't cavil at a virgin birth.

comment by Caledonian2 · 2007-12-24T20:24:13.000Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW
a god that can create an entire universe in seven days just to lavish attention and affection upon the peoples of a certain small globe certainly wouldn't cavil at revealing his existence to a heretical farmer through golden plates that require a magical gem to translate

Fixed that for you.

Surely, the repentant Xenu - who ordered the genocide of countless billions of intelligent beings - could, if he chose, decide to reveal the true nature of their sufferings to the denizens of the planet Earth through the writings of a science-fiction author of questionable talent. And clearly the unbelievable nature of his claims only lend them greater authority, because who would ever make up something so ridiculous in an effort to get people to believe?

comment by Ben_Jones · 2007-12-24T20:29:54.000Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I'm looking forward to part II, set in the year 28, in which the rabbi comes forward to the Nazareth Tablet claiming that he, not God, is actually the father of our Lord and Saviour, resulting in a prolonged war of words and claims in the media. Mary will finally win out by signing a 5m dinarii deal to write her memoirs (entitled 'Virgin: My Story').

Happy Bayesmas everyone! Have a rational, thoughtful, productive, faith-free nonspecific secular midwinter festival!

comment by Anna4 · 2007-12-24T20:34:05.000Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

Eliezer, The claim isn't that you should not hate religion. The claim is that sociologically, this post is a bit like giving the Hated Enemy a kick in the pants. The point in it is fairly obvious (though, as people point out with the chronology, possibly historically false). People who already want to laugh at religion get to go "har-har", and people who for whatever reason want to not laugh at religion get to feel alienated from whatever it is you're up to here.

It is one of those posts that makes me wonder more acutely what you are up to here. Some months ago I found your writings on the singularity, seriously considered giving the SIAI money, and instead spent a great chunk of time trying to launch a disaster-averting effort of my own. I am still devoting most of my divert-able time toward launching that project because I still think (partly on the basis of your arguments) that reducing existential risks is the most important thing most of us can accomplish. Do you? Is this blog a way to recharge so you can return to the work at hand? Are posts like this somehow part of the research you are doing on Friendliness? Is explaining to people how Christianity could look foolish (via posts like this, which aren't even especially well done or anything) a separate good as worthy of your time as whatever work it displaces? Am I missing a possibility here?

comment by poke · 2007-12-24T21:25:33.000Z · score: 7 (8 votes) · LW · GW

Sometimes puerile humor serves a purpose. Some people, apparently, still need to be shocked out of their deference for tradition.

comment by briarandbramble · 2007-12-24T21:38:01.000Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I feel like Anna. I don't understand what this post accomplishes, and I would like answers to the questions Anna asks.

comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2007-12-24T22:13:00.000Z · score: 16 (18 votes) · LW · GW

Well, let's see. First, while a mere kick in the pants is not funny, there's a long and extremely respectable tradition of satire that happens to involve a kick in the pants. "The Virgin Mary is a slut, haha" wouldn't be funny.

If you're asking what the higher purpose of this post is, it's right up at the top: If you grow up believing something, or even if the people around you seem to think it's "normal", then you may not notice the inherent absurdities in it. How many people hear the story of the Virgin Mary? How many see the humor in it, even after they become atheists? This is a kind of sleep, and one of the ways you wake up is by noticing that the people around you, and even yourself, are selectively overlooking flaws that would be obvious if the beliefs were only believed by one person.

"Mere messiahs" is along the same line. The point of "Mere messiahs" is not to attack Christianity, because superhero comics have the same problem. If only a single person had walked right up to you and said, "Here's this Superman guy - I really admire him!" and no one else had ever heard of Superman before, then you might be more likely to scrutinize for flaws, and say, "Wait a minute, how does this Superman guy reveal more virtue than a police officer who isn't bulletproof?"

You have to get used to checking all these casually, socially accepted beliefs and moralities for these hidden little gotchas. The point is to wake up and start checking social beliefs for flaws, just as if you had only heard them from one person. To this end, any bit of absurdity you can find is helpful. It gets you into the habit.

comment by cerebus2 · 2007-12-24T22:49:33.000Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I doubt this is one of those posts that takes 8 hours, and it is the holidays!

People not raised deeply in religion (like, say, the Orthodox Jewish community), and who didn't have to wait 'till they were in their 20s to 'come out' as atheist, probably don't appreciate the level of militancy folk like Eliezer display. I'm 2nd generation, and despite my militant materialism, I don't share my (Catholic) parents level of hostility to religion. YMMV.

Anyway, here's some festive viewing for y'all.

comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2007-12-24T23:50:49.000Z · score: 17 (17 votes) · LW · GW

People not raised deeply in religion (like, say, the Orthodox Jewish community), and who didn't have to wait 'till they were in their 20s to 'come out' as atheist, probably don't appreciate the level of militancy folk like Eliezer display.

Correct. If you were raised in a family of gentle and convenient religion, and you don't like having militant adult atheists running around, then outlaw serious religious impositions on children under 18 (study of Torah for half of each school day, fasting without food or water for 25 hours while walking a couple of miles to synagogue). Maybe then you'll see less bitterness from the adults! D'you think?

Wouldn't support such a law? Neither would I. But bear in mind: Not everyone has a childhood that makes "religion" a cute little teddy bear.

Religion is this cute voluntary thing, with no harmful side effects, that only Scrooge would attack? How strange that anyone would hold a grudge? A bizarre public belief, which everyone repeats, but which is right up there with the Virgin Mary for inherent absurdity. If just one person came to you and said such a thing, you would laugh at them...

This post did start out as just for fun. Sometimes I can feel the world trying to strip me of my sense of humor.

comment by FeepingCreature · 2010-09-09T19:50:41.585Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Just for what it's worth as a very belated reply - I was raised in a family of gentle and convenient religion, and would strongly support such a law, as well as outlawing advertisement targeted at children.

comment by Raw_Power · 2010-12-26T23:03:23.536Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Y'know what? Children shouldn't be baptized. None of that "confirmation" nonsense. You get to decide once you're in your twenties.

comment by CronoDAS · 2010-12-26T23:12:35.010Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

There are some Christian denominations that agree with that.

comment by Psy-Kosh · 2007-12-25T00:23:31.000Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

Eh, coming from a modern orthodox background but with "gentle and convinient" modifications here and there, that's not all fun and games too.

"Okay... so you're saying that being overly fanatic, absolutely strict in absolute observance of the Torah is a bad thing? But you're saying you believe the Torah is the absolute one true word of God, who must always be obeyed... But, rejecting this other stuff here is fanatical and over the top? uh....."

"Okay, so you're saying times were different then... so you're saying you don't believe the notion that the Torah is eternal and unchanging? er.. the question isn't if you agree with me or not, the question is if you even agree with yourself?"

(Though at the same time, they'll laugh at the joke: "The difference between a fanatic and a goy? Anyone a drop more frum than me is a fanatic, and anyone a drop less is a goy.")

Suffice it to say that in many ways my brain still feels scrambled sometimes. :) (I took the scenic route to rationality, including such things as interest in the occult, and for a while having convinced myself that the biblical flood happened..... on mars. As I said, extremely scenic route...)

Hrm.. I wonder how tied this is to procrastination... I think I ended up procrastinating fully accepting the rational consequences of, well, accepting that rationality is a Good Idea(tm). :)

comment by Raw_Power · 2010-12-26T23:23:02.813Z · score: 38 (37 votes) · LW · GW

Here is my ranking of religious people, in lessening order of how irritating I find them:

  • Fundies that don't try to make sense, have an inconsisten set of beliefs, which ends up boilng down to societal rules that are abhorrent to the Liberal Social Democrat Humanist. They will behead you if you meet a certain number of more-or-less reasonable criteria. They will not feel sorry about it.

  • Moderates that don't try to make sense, , have an inconsisten set of beliefs, which ends up boilng down to societal rules that are pleasant to the Liberal Social Democrat Humanist. They will not behead you, ever. They might feel guilty about not doing it.

  • Fundies that do try to make sense, have a mostly consistent and sensible set of beliefs, which is based on the literal revealed text, understood as well as possible, using the original language, with all the modern tools of hermeneutics and linguistics, who don't care about any sensibilieties, modern or traditional, only about those of their chosen Prophet(s). They will behead you if you meet a certain number of clearly established, sensible, consistent criteria that are applied at all times to everyone. They may or may not feel sorry about it, and they may or may not try to apply as much clemency as the rules allow them.

Yup. The last ones, I can tolerate best. It takes a lot of courage, and a lot of fortitude, as well as other "virtues", to be a true, honest follower of your own religion. It requires a lot of selflessness, and a lot of sacrifice. I had been trying to be one ever since I was a child. And all I found around me were people in the first and second category. There were exceptional, modern Muslim reformists like that Tarik Ramadan (of whom I still think eh is a pretty cool guy, as fundies go), who tried to give Muslims who had a mind towards modernity and competitiveness and consistency and justice an acceptable workframe to do that within Islam. But then I stumbled upon this place and found out that the thing I was striving for, consistency, is unattainable in religion.

In other words, all those people are wasting their time.

You could say I took a sort-of scenic route to rationality, by wanting to be a real Muslim, one that did everything the Qran and Muhammad would want him to do (including figuring out what exactly they'd want me to do), consistently and coherently. Islam makes it more difficult to do than Christianity and Judaism because it is almost bare, pure Theism, and until I read Relgion's Claim to be Non-Disprovable, I thought the system was still salvageable. Well, so much for all that time wasted to angst. (Now instead I waste time ranting...)

comment by orthonormal · 2010-12-26T23:40:01.619Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Formatting note: You're missing a space between the asterisk at the beginning of a paragraph, and the letter following it.

comment by Raw_Power · 2010-12-28T00:35:49.450Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Frankly, I expected to be downvoted to hell for this... Why did the opposite happen I wonder?

comment by Will_Sawin · 2010-12-28T02:54:54.053Z · score: 10 (10 votes) · LW · GW

Hypothesis: People agree.

comment by DSimon · 2010-12-28T15:36:37.322Z · score: 9 (9 votes) · LW · GW

Alternate hypothesis (of which I am a single data point): People think it was a well-written, interesting comment, despite disagreeing with its conclusion on several points.

comment by Raw_Power · 2010-12-31T17:48:18.552Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Either way, Ureshi!

comment by Costanza · 2010-12-28T01:14:35.608Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

I take it Bart Ehrman followed a similar path...learning Greek in order to learn New Testament "scripture"...only to find out that nobody knows for sure what the "original" really was.

This is a common problem for all the Abrahamic scripture-based religions, whether they admit it or not (they mostly don't.) It's really, really hard -- I would say impossible -- to prove that variations or changes have not been introduced since the time of a hypothetical original text, copied from handwriting scribe to handwriting scribe. And the harder, fundamentalist versions of the Abrahamic religions always ascribe HUGE importance to the integrity and wonderfulness of the text.

comment by TobyBartels · 2010-12-30T07:57:49.849Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

This is why some fundies interpret their scripture to say that God will magically make it such that whatever text they happen to have on hand is the right text! Example.

Logically, this is as circular as the people who interpret their scripture to say that the scripture is inerrant, but of course it's good enough for them.

comment by JohnH · 2011-04-29T04:51:29.450Z · score: -4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

And the harder, fundamentalist versions of the Abrahamic religions always ascribe HUGE importance to the integrity and wonderfulness of the text.

If one considers the LDS to be of the Abrahamic religions and to be fundamentalist then we have an answer to this being "We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly".

comment by wedrifid · 2011-04-29T04:52:40.598Z · score: 1 (7 votes) · LW · GW

"We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly"

What's your position with respect to dashing babies against the rocks?

comment by Eugine_Nier · 2011-04-29T05:21:56.711Z · score: -7 (11 votes) · LW · GW

What's your position with respect to dashing babies against the rocks?

Why do you ask? Do you believe it's "wrong" or something?

(Note: wedrifid was one of the people arguing that the terms "morality"/"right"/"wrong" are meaningless independent of preferences in the recent metaethics thread.)

Edit: an even better link is here.

Peterdjones:

So you think there is nothing wrong in having a preference for murder? Yes or no?

NMJablonski:

I do not believe there is a set of correct preferences. There is no objective right or wrong.

Peterdjones:

Funny how you never quite answer the question as stated. Can you even say it is subjectively wrong?

wedrifid:

It isn't 'funny' at all. You were trying to force someone into a lose lose morality signalling position. It is appropriate to ignore such attempts and instead state what your actual position is.

Your gambit here verges on logically rude.

comment by CuSithBell · 2011-04-29T05:24:35.741Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

I don't think that argument means what you think it does.

comment by Eugine_Nier · 2011-04-29T05:31:48.979Z · score: -3 (7 votes) · LW · GW

I don't see how to interpret this exchange any other way.

comment by NMJablonski · 2011-04-29T05:36:48.110Z · score: -2 (12 votes) · LW · GW

Yes, Eugine, we get it.

You're a theist. You believe in a grand cosmic judge built into the universe which approves or disapproves of human action. We do not. Deal with it.

Edit: Sorry for any rudeness there, but you've now dragged this argument out of its original thread. Not to make any point, but to taunt.

comment by wedrifid · 2011-04-29T05:43:21.003Z · score: 1 (5 votes) · LW · GW

You're a theist. You believe in a grand cosmic judge built into the universe which approves or disapproves of human action. We do not. Deal with it.

I don't know whether Eugine is a theist. I would have gone with "fundamentalist humanist". There are certainly similarities between Eugine's position and typical theists and the 'built into the universe' part seems about right.

comment by NMJablonski · 2011-04-29T05:51:24.556Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I don't know whether Eugine is a theist. I would have gone with "fundamentalist humanist".

I was doing some thinking after the thread earlier about whether or not one can be a moral realist without in some sense being a theist. I tried as hard as I could to phrase Peter and Eugine's position non-theistically, with some variant of:

"There exists a set of preferences which all intelligent agents... "

And I tried finishing the sentence with "are compelled by some force to adopt". But that obviously isn't true as there are extreme differences in preference among agents. I tried finishing the sentence with "should adopt", but of course the word should contains the entire confusion all over again. Should adopt according to whom? , I was forced to ask.

The moral realist position is nonsensical without an intelligence against whose preferences you can check.

comment by Eugine_Nier · 2011-04-29T06:08:17.043Z · score: -3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Wow, that's right up there with attempts to define God that end up defining God to be "the universe", "the laws of physics", or "mathematics".

Yes, technically you can define God to be any of these things and any of the above definitions would make me a theist. However, I don't think any of the above definitions are particularly helpful.

comment by NMJablonski · 2011-04-29T06:15:34.382Z · score: 0 (4 votes) · LW · GW

All I'm saying is that there needs to be an intelligence, some value-having agent or entity, in order for actions to be judged. If there is no intelligence, there are no values.

comment by Eugine_Nier · 2011-04-29T06:24:29.464Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I don't see how that follows.

My position is more-or-less the one argued by Marius in this thread. Especially the second posibility in this comment.

Also, I think it would be better to take all further discussion into that thread.

comment by wedrifid · 2011-04-29T06:35:56.720Z · score: 2 (6 votes) · LW · GW

All I'm saying is that there needs to be an intelligence, some value-having agent or entity, in order for actions to be judged. If there is no intelligence, there are no values.

Judging requires an agent. But values does not. That just requires an object capable of representing information. The universe could have values built into it even without having intelligence to be judging with it. (Completely irrelevant observation.)

comment by Eugine_Nier · 2011-04-29T06:44:26.566Z · score: -1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

In fact judging only requires an optimization process. Not all optimization processes are agents or intelligent.

comment by wedrifid · 2011-04-29T07:35:23.259Z · score: -1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

In fact judging only requires an optimization process. Not all optimization processes are agents or intelligent.

It doesn't even need to be an optimization process. Just a process.

comment by NMJablonski · 2011-04-29T06:51:21.446Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Judging requires an agent. But values does not. That just requires an object capable of representing information.

I see what you mean there, but without intelligence those values would be just static information. I don't see how the moral realist's conception of objective morality can make any sense without an intelligent agent.

I suppose, in connection with your point about "subjective objectivity" a moment ago, I can see how any set of values can be said to "exist" in the sense that one could measure reality against them.

Edit: That doesn't seem to change anything ethically though. We can call it objective if we like, but to choose which of those we call "right" or "moral" depends entirely on the values and preferences of the querying agent.

comment by Peterdjones · 2011-04-29T13:15:11.573Z · score: -2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

And if someone changes their values of preferences as a result of exhortation or self-reflection...what do values and preferences then depend on?

comment by NMJablonski · 2011-04-29T13:33:19.299Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

The physical change in a mind over time, i.e. cognition.

If someone chooses, or would choose, to adopt a new value or preference, they do so by referring to their existing value / preference network.

comment by Desrtopa · 2011-05-01T09:23:20.595Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

The universe could have values built into it even without having intelligence to be judging with it. (Completely irrelevant observation.)

I've considered this idea before, but I can't imagine what if anything it would actually entail.

comment by Peterdjones · 2011-04-29T13:40:37.982Z · score: -3 (7 votes) · LW · GW

It is surprising to find someone on a site dedicated to the Art of Rationality who cannot imagine impersonal norms, since rationality is a set of impersonal norms. You are not compelled to be rational, to be moral, or to play chess. But if you are being rational, you should avoid contradictions--that is a norm. If you are being moral, you should avoid doing unto others what you would not wish done unto you. If you are playing chess, you should avoid placing the bishop on a square that cannot be reached diagonally from the current one. No-one makes you follow those rules, but there is a logical relationship between following the rules and playing the game: you cannot break the rules and still play the game. In that sense, you must follow the rules to stay in the game. But that is not an edict coming from a person or Person.

ETA: You may well need agents to have values. I don't require morality to be free of values.

comment by NMJablonski · 2011-04-29T13:51:03.666Z · score: 2 (6 votes) · LW · GW

I'm sorry Peter, but I do not subscribe to your flights of non-empirical philosophy. We have been around this over and over. I could sit here and explain to you how the chess analogy fails, how the rationality analogy fails, et cetera and so on.

You embody Hollywood rationality. Your conception of belief and thought is entirely verbal and anthropocentric. You focus too hard on philosophy and not enough on physics. As a result, you can be seen almost palpably grasping at straws.

I avoid doing unto others what I would not wish done unto me because that policy, when shared by social animals like humans, leads to results I prefer. I have evolved that preference. I voluntarily cooperate because it is in my direct interest, i.e. fulfills my values and preferences.

comment by Peterdjones · 2011-04-30T10:48:47.800Z · score: 1 (5 votes) · LW · GW

I could sit here and explain to you how the chess analogy fails, how the rationality analogy fails, et cetera and so on.

I would find it easier to believe you could if you had.

I avoid doing unto others what I would not wish done unto me because that policy, when shared by social animals like humans, leads to results I prefer. I have evolved that preference. I voluntarily cooperate because it is in my direct interest, i.e. fulfills my values and preferences.

Reasoning about preferences is still reasoning.

comment by NMJablonski · 2011-04-30T14:54:04.396Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Reasoning about preferences is still reasoning.

I don't deny that you can reason about preferences. All I'm saying is that to make a decision about whether to keep, discard, or modify your own preferences, the only metrics you have to check against are your own existing values and preferences. There are no moral facts out there in the universe to check against.

Do you disagree?

I would find it easier to believe you could if you had.

It turns out that I couldn't walk away so easily, and so I, and several others, have.

comment by Peterdjones · 2011-04-30T18:14:16.269Z · score: 0 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Next I'll be saying that mathematicians can come up with objectively true theorems without checking them against Paul Erdos's Book..

Values and preferences can be re-evaluated according to norms of rationality, such as consistency. We generally deem the outputs of reasoning processes to be objective, even absent the existence of a domain of things to be checked against.

comment by JoshuaZ · 2011-04-30T23:42:34.259Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Next I'll be saying that mathematicians can come up with objectively true theorems without checking them against Paul Erdos's Book..

First, that book only has the elegant proofs. Second this totally misses the point: whether a statement is a theorem of a given formal system is objectively true or false is a distinct claim from the claim that some set of axioms is objectively a set of axioms that is somehow worth paying attention to. Even if two mathematicians disagree about whether or not one should include the Axiom of Choice in set theory, they'll both agree that doing so is equivalent to including Zorn's Lemma.

You aren't just claiming that there are "theorems" from some set of moral axioms, but seem to be claiming that some sets of axioms are intrinsically better than others. You keep making this sort of leap and keep giving it no substantial justification other than the apparent reasoning that you want to be able to say things like "Gandhi was good" or "genocide is bad" and feel that there's objective weight behind it. And we all empathize with that desire, but that doesn't make those statements more valid in any objective sense.

comment by Peterdjones · 2011-05-01T13:24:38.775Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I haven't said anything is intriniscally better: I have argued that the choice of basic principles in maths, morlaity, etc is constrained by what we expect to be able to do with those things.

If you vary the way games work too much, you end with useless non-games (winning is undefinable, one player always wins...) If you vary the way rationality works too much, you end up with paradox, quodlibet etc. If you vary the rules of meta ethics too much, you end up with anyone being allowed to do anything, or nobody being allowed to do anything.

Yes. I do want to be able to say murder is wrong. I should want to be able to say that. It's a feature. not a bug.. What use is a new improved rationalised system of mathematics which can't support 2+2=4?

comment by JoshuaZ · 2011-05-01T14:13:36.286Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Peter, how do you reconcile this statement with your statement such as the one's here where you say that

I think most moral nihilists are not evil. But the point is that if he really does think murder is not wrong, he has a bad glitch in his thinking; and if he does think murder is wrong, but feels unable to say so, he has another glitch.

comment by Peterdjones · 2011-05-01T14:16:06.937Z · score: -1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I don't see the problem. What needs reconciling with what?

comment by JoshuaZ · 2011-05-01T14:24:56.202Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

How can you say someone has a glitch if they simply aren't adopting your system which you acknowledge is arbitrary?

comment by Peterdjones · 2011-05-01T14:32:28.757Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Yet again: I never said morality was arbitrary.

I said he has a glitch if he can't see that murder is wrong. I didn't say he had to arrive at it the way I arrived at it.. I am selling a meta ethical theory. I am not selling 1-st order system of morality like Roman Catholicism or something. I use core intuitions, common to all 1st order systems, as test cased. If you can't get them out of your metaethical principles, you are doing something wrong.

What use is a new improved rationalised system of mathematics which can't support 2+2=4?

comment by JoshuaZ · 2011-05-01T15:57:28.347Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Yet again: I never said morality was arbitrary.

So morality is like chess, but there's some sort of grounding for why we should play it? I am confused as to what your position is.

What use is a new improved rationalised system of mathematics which can't support 2+2=4?

I'm not sure what you mean by that. If I'm following your analogy correctly then this is somewhat wrong. Any reasonable general philosophy of metamathematics would tell you that 2+2=4 is only true in certain axiomatic systems. For example, if I used as an axiomatic system all the axioms of ZFC but left out the axiom of infinity and the axiom of replacement, I cannot then show that + is a well-defined operation. But this is an interesting system which has been studied. Moreover, nothing in my metamathematics tells me that that I should be more interested in ZFC or Peano Arithmetic. I am more interested in those systems, but that's due to cultural and environmental norms. And one could probably have a whole career studying weak systems where one cannot derive 2+2=4 for the most natural interpretations of "2", "+","=" and "4" in that system.

To return to the original notion, just because a metaethical theory has to support that someone within their more and ethical framework has "murder is wrong" doesn't mean that the metaethical system must consider that to be a non-arbitrary claim. This is similar to just because our metamathetical theory can handle 2+2=4 doesn't mean it needs to assert that 2+2=4 in some abstract sense.

comment by AlephNeil · 2011-05-01T17:25:33.957Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

For example, if I used as an axiomatic system all the axioms of ZFC but left out the axiom of infinity and the axiom of replacement, I cannot then show that + is a well-defined operation.

I know this is a sidetrack, but I don't think that's right, unless we're omitting the axiom of pairing as well. Can't we use pairing to prove the finite version of replacement? (This needs an induction, but that doesn't require the axioms of replacement or infinity.) Hence, can't we show that addition of finite ordinals is well-defined, at least in the sense that we have a class Plus(x,y,z) satisfying the necessary properties?

(Actually, I think it ought to be possible to show that addition is well-defined even without pairing, because power set and separation alone (i.e. together with empty set and union) give us all hereditarily finite sets. Perhaps we can use them to prove that {x,y} exists when x and y are hereditarily finite.)

comment by JoshuaZ · 2011-05-01T22:13:54.930Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I know this is a sidetrack, but I don't think that's right, unless we're omitting the axiom of pairing as well. Can't we use pairing to prove the finite version of replacement? (This needs an induction, but that doesn't require the axioms of replacement or infinity.)

If we don't have the axiom of infinity then addition isn't a function (since its domain and range aren't necessarily sets).

comment by AlephNeil · 2011-05-01T22:21:40.693Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Sure, but we still have a "class". "Classes" are either crude syntactic sugar for "formulae" (as in ZFC) or they're a slightly more refined syntactic sugar for "formulae" (as in BGC). In either case, classes are ubiquitous - for instance, ordinal addition isn't a function either, but we prove things about it just as if it was.

comment by AlephNeil · 2011-05-01T22:33:33.829Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

then addition isn't a function

Sure, in the sense that it's not a set. But instead we can make do with a (possibly proper) "class". We define a formula Plus(x,y,z) in the language of set theory (i.e. using nothing other than set equality and membership + logical operations), then we prove that for all finite ordinals x and y there exists a unique finite ordinal z such that Plus(x,y,z), and then we agree to use the notation x + y = z instead of Plus(x,y,z).

This is not an unusual situation in set theory. For instance, cardinal exponentiation and 'functions' like Aleph are really classes (i.e. formulas) rather than sets.

comment by JoshuaZ · 2011-05-01T22:43:06.068Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Yes. But in ZFC we can't talk about classes. We can construct predicates that describe classes, but one needs to prove that those predicates make sense. Can we in this context we can show that Plus(x,y,z) is a well-defined predicate that acts like we expect addition to act (i.e. associative, commutative and has 0 as an identity)?

comment by AlephNeil · 2011-05-01T22:51:25.547Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

But in ZFC we can't talk about classes.

In practice we tend to throw them around even when working in ZFC, on the understanding that they're just "syntactic sugar". For instance, if f(x,y) is a formula such that for all x there exists unique y such that f(x,y), and phi is some formula then rather than write "there exists y such that f(x,y) and phi(y)" it's much nicer to just write "phi(F(x))" even though strictly speaking there's no such object as F.

Can we in this context we can show that Plus(x,y,z) is a well-defined predicate that acts like we expect addition to act (i.e. associative, commutative and has 0 as an identity)?

I think the proofs go through almost unchanged (once we prove 'finite replacement').

comment by JoshuaZ · 2011-05-01T23:08:45.305Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I think the proofs go through almost unchanged (once we prove 'finite replacement').

I'm not as confident but foundations is very much not my area of expertise. I'll try to work out the details and see if I run into any issues.

comment by AlephNeil · 2011-05-01T23:13:58.833Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Well, we could define Plus(x,y,z) by "there exists a function f : x -> z with successor(max(codomain(f))) = z, which preserves successorship and sends 0 to y". (ETA: This only works if x > 0 though.)

And then we just need to do loads of inductions, but the basic induction schema is easy:

Suppose P(0) and for all finite ordinals n, P(n) implies P(n+1). Suppose ¬P(k). Let S = {finite ordinals n : ¬P(n) and n <= k}. By the axiom of foundation, S has a smallest element m. Then ¬P(m). But then either m = 0 or P(m-1), yielding a contradiction in either case.

comment by JoshuaZ · 2011-05-01T23:29:53.534Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Yes, this seems to work.

comment by wedrifid · 2011-05-01T15:10:10.299Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

How can you say someone has a glitch if they simply aren't adopting your system which you acknowledge is arbitrary?

By arbitrarily declaring what qualifies as a glitch. (Which is only partially arbitrary if you have information about typical or 'intended' behaviour for an agent.)

comment by JoshuaZ · 2011-04-29T14:10:56.872Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

But if you are being rational, you should avoid contradictions--that is a norm. If you are being moral, you should avoid doing unto others what you would not wish done unto you. If you are playing chess, you should avoid placing the bishop on a square that cannot be reached diagonally from the current one. No-one makes you follow those rules, but there is a logical relationship between following the rules and playing the game: you cannot break the rules and still play the game. In that sense, you must follow the rules to stay in the game.

Are you asserting that being "moral" is just like a game with a set of agreed upon rules? That doesn't fit with your earlier claims (e.g. this remark)and on top of that seems to run into the problems of people not agreeing what the rules are. Note incidentally, that it is extremely unlikely that any random intelligence will either know or have any desire to play chess. If you think the same applies about your notion of morality then there's much less disagreement, but that doesn't seem to be what you are asserting. I am confused.

comment by wedrifid · 2011-04-29T14:15:30.459Z · score: 2 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Are you asserting that being "moral" is just like a game with a set of agreed upon rules?

Agreed upon? Most of the game is in making up rules and forcing them on others despite their disagreement!

comment by NMJablonski · 2011-04-29T14:26:05.158Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Upvoted for levity! Whew, we needed it.

comment by NMJablonski · 2011-04-29T23:31:36.537Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I am tremendously confused as to why this and the parent were downvoted. Clearly I should just stop posting.

comment by JohnH · 2011-04-29T23:41:05.953Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Or quit caring about the voting system.

comment by NMJablonski · 2011-04-29T23:59:45.872Z · score: 0 (4 votes) · LW · GW

That is also an option.

Although it would be unpleasant, I think, to be the loud guy at the party who no one wants to be there. Still, I overreacted, I think. It was a relatively small number of my posts that were received negatively, and absent an explanation of why they were, all I can do is work on refining my rationality and communication skills.

Edit: Downvoted lol

Further edit: This could be like rejection therapy for karma. Everyone downvote this post!

comment by JoshuaZ · 2011-04-29T14:26:21.479Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Agreed upon? Most of the game is in making up rules and forcing them on others despite their disagreement!

Although that happens with other games also, when there's a disagreement about the rules. It just seems to be a smaller fraction of the game and something that everyone tries to avoid. There are some games that explicitly lampshade this. The official rules of Munchkin say something like (paraphrase) " in a rules dispute whoever shouts loudest is right."

comment by Peterdjones · 2011-04-29T15:44:42.450Z · score: -2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I'm arguing that there is a sense in which one "should" follow rules which has nothing to do with human-like agents laying down the law, thereby refuting NMJ's attempt at a link between objective morality and theism.

There are constraints on the rules games can have (eg fairness, a clear winner after finite time). There are constraints on rationality (eg avoidance of quodlibet). Likewise, there are constraints on the rules of moral reasoning. (eg. people cannot just make up their own morality and do what they want). Note that I am talking about metaethics here.

comment by JoshuaZ · 2011-04-29T16:27:43.419Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I'm arguing that there is a sense in which one "should" follow rules which has nothing to do with human-like agents laying down the law, thereby refuting NMJ's attempt at a link between objective morality and theism.

So this is the exact opposite of a chess game. So what do you mean by your analogy?

comment by NMJablonski · 2011-04-29T14:14:22.475Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

To expound on JoshuaZ's point, would chess have rules even if there were no minds?

Are the rules of chess objective and independent of anyone actually, y'know, knowing them?

ETA: Furthermore, if two agents in a place where chess has never existed come across a chess set, and they have a disagreement about what the rules might be, is one of them right and the other wrong?

comment by nshepperd · 2011-04-29T14:36:57.260Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

The rules of chess would certainly exist, as much as any other mathematical object does. Of course, not every mind would care to follow them...

comment by NMJablonski · 2011-04-29T14:44:49.464Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

One could identify many different sets of rules for chess mathematically, but is one of them objectively the "correct" set of rules?

Or does selecting a set of rules from the possibilities always require the action of a subjective mind?

Edit: Also...

as much as any other mathematical object does

... that's a whole other rabbit hole, no?

comment by Peterdjones · 2011-04-29T15:20:15.224Z · score: -1 (5 votes) · LW · GW

One could identify many different sets of rules for chess mathematically, but is one of them objectively the "correct" set of rules?

I find that perplexing. Perhaps you mean many sets of rules could be used to play games with chess boards and pieces. But they are not all chess. Chess is its rules. Same rules+differrent pieces=same game. Different rules+same pieces=different game.

comment by JoshuaZ · 2011-04-29T16:38:32.969Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Chess is its rules. Same rules+differrent pieces=same game. Different rules+same pieces=different game.

This isn't strictly speaking true. Note that there have many different games called chess. For example, pawns being able to move 2 squares on their first move, en passant, castling, and the queen being able to move as she can, are all recent innovations. But let's put that aside and explore your analogy. If there's one thing called "morality" then I fail to see how that isn't but one game among many. You seem to be treating morality like chess (in that there's an objective thing that is or is not chess) but are then bringing along for the particular game called "morality" all sorts of assumptions about whether or not people should play it or expect to play it. This seems akin to asserting that because there's only one objective game called "chess" that entities "should" play it.

comment by NMJablonski · 2011-04-29T16:57:25.727Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

In Italy one can still find older chess players who use an alternative castling rule, from when castling was first being introduced, called "free castling" in which the rook can take any of the squares between itself and the king, or the king's position, rather than the single permitted position (depending on the side) of the more common castling rules we play with today.

Is one of these versions the "correct" way to play chess? Or does it depend entirely on the subjective viewpoint of the chess players?

comment by jimrandomh · 2011-04-29T19:53:20.091Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Which way is the correct way to play "chess" depends on which definition of the word chess you are using. In general, we resolve ambiguities like that by looking at the speaker's intent. (The speaker does not have to be one of the players.)

comment by NMJablonski · 2011-04-29T20:35:24.075Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Which way is the correct way to play "chess" depends on which definition of the word chess you are using. In general, we resolve ambiguities like that by looking at the speaker's intent. (The speaker does not have to be one of the players.)

Yes, I know that. I'm asking rhetorical questions to Peter who is a moral realist.

comment by Peterdjones · 2011-04-30T11:58:39.746Z · score: -1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Chess might be a small and closely related family of rule-sets. That doesn't affect anything.

comment by NMJablonski · 2011-04-30T14:59:27.291Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Alright, this is your analogy, and instead of dancing around and arguing definitions can you explain, in precise terms, what you mean when you say chess?

comment by nshepperd · 2011-04-29T15:27:19.795Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

There's exactly one function which is objectively the function which returns 1 for just those moves where a pawn moves one space, or two spaces on the first move, or the bishop moves diagonally, or the king moves one space, where none of the moves intersect other pieces without capturing, etc...

As I said, not every mind will care to evaluate this function.

As for whether mathematical objects exist... is this important? It really adds up to the same thing, either way.

(By the way, have you read the metaethics sequence?)

comment by NMJablonski · 2011-04-29T16:46:46.462Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

There's exactly one function which is objectively the function which returns 1 for just those moves where a pawn moves one space, or two spaces on the first move, or the bishop moves diagonally, or the king moves one space, where none of the moves intersect other pieces without capturing, etc...

Yes, of course. I wasn't arguing anything else. The person I was contending with is a moral realist, who would say that the function which represents those rules, the rules under which we play chess now, is the correct set of rules, and that this correctness is objective and independent of the minds of chess players.

This person would, I presume, argue that if suddenly every chess player in the world at the same time agreed to eliminate en passant from the game of chess, that they would then be playing the game "wrong".

That is the position which I find nonsensical. I'm not arguing for anything bizarre here. I'm a Bayesian rationalist and a reductionist and yes I have read the sequences.

comment by Peterdjones · 2011-04-30T12:16:58.864Z · score: -1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

The person I was contending with is a moral realist, who would say that the function which represents those rules, the rules under which we play chess now, is the correct set of rules, and that this correctness is objective and independent of the minds of chess players.

I explained the point I was making and that wasn't it: The point was what obligation/compulsion means. It doesn't mean it is physically impossible to do what is morally forbidden. It doesn't mean it is an edict you will be punished for disobeying. It does mean that it is logically impossible to be moral (or rational or a chess player) after having significantly departed from the rules.

This person would, I presume, argue that if suddenly every chess player in the world at the same time agreed to eliminate en passant from the game of chess, that they would then be playing the game "wrong".

They would be playing a different game..chess 2.0 or chess++. Plainly, you can't have one player using the revised rules and her opponent the old ones.

comment by NMJablonski · 2011-04-30T15:05:16.706Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

to do what is morally forbidden

With your chess analogy, those moves that are forbidden are set by human minds and decisions. The game of chess itself is a product of human intelligence, and they can change the rules over time, and indeed they have.

Are you saying that morality works the same way? That what is morally forbidden are those things which most people find objectionable / assign negative value to?

They would be playing a different game..chess 2.0 or chess++. Plainly, you can't have one player using the revised rules and her opponent the old ones.

Dude, you just said a minute ago that the word "chess" could be a family of different but related rulesets when I asked about castling, but now when it comes to changing en passant the game becomes something else entirely? I think you should respond to my question on that thread about a precise explanation of what you mean by "chess", as I cannot figure out why some things count and others do not.

comment by Peterdjones · 2011-04-30T16:28:49.138Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

If you vary the way games work too much, you end with useless non-games (winning is undefinable, one player always wins...) If you vary the way rationality works too much, you end up with paradox, quodlibet etc. If you vary the rules of meta ethics too much, you end up with anyone being allowed to do anything, or nobody being allowed to do anything. "The rules are made up" doesn't mean the rules are abitrary.

There is a family of chess-type games, and they are different games, because they are not intersubstitutable.

comment by Document · 2011-04-29T22:01:02.146Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I'll take the bait: A place where the idea of chess had never been thought of couldn't, by definition, contain a chess set. It could contain an artifact physically identical to one and which we could call one if we weren't being precise, but it would have to have come from some origin besides humans intending to build a chess set. Thus would be perfectly reasonable for the two to speculate (and be right or wrong) about what (if any) use it was meant for by its actual builders (if any).

comment by NMJablonski · 2011-04-29T22:40:47.477Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

It could contain an artifact physically identical to one and which we could call one if we weren't being precise, but it would have to have come from some origin besides humans intending to build a chess set.

Do you seriously mean to imply that something identical to chess set is not a chess set? The words "chess set" as I used them above are meant only to connect to a physical object, not intentions.

Thus would be perfectly reasonable for the two to speculate (and be right or wrong) about what (if any) use it was meant for by its actual builders (if any).

In practical terms I agree completely. My argument with Peter wasn't actually about chess though, so it doesn't make a ton of sense when you focus on particulars of the analogy, especially an analogy so flawed as this one.

Do you think we disagree on any issue of substance? If so, where?

comment by Peterdjones · 2011-04-30T11:31:36.707Z · score: -2 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Do you seriously mean to imply that something identical to chess set is not a chess set?

A duplicate of the Mona Lisa wouldn't be the Mona Lisa.

comment by NMJablonski · 2011-04-30T14:56:47.022Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Have you read the quantum physics sequence? Are you familiar with the experimental evidence on particle indistinguishability?

comment by Peterdjones · 2011-04-30T18:03:49.601Z · score: 0 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I'm familiar with it anyway. The point is that things like history, prvenance and cultural significance are built into the way we think about things, part of the connotational cloud. That doesn;t contradict QM, but it does schemes to lossllessly reduce meaning to physics.

comment by Peterdjones · 2011-04-30T10:36:47.212Z · score: -2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

To expound on JoshuaZ's point, would chess have rules even if there were no minds?

Are the rules of chess objective and independent of anyone actually, y'know, knowing them?

Nothing I have to say about morality or metaethics hinges on that one way or the other.

comment by NMJablonski · 2011-04-30T14:54:51.223Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Then clearly we have badly miscommunicated.

comment by Perplexed · 2011-05-01T00:37:15.550Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

Try this:

There exists a set of maxims which all intelligent and social agents find it in their long-term interest to adhere to, even if adherence is not always in the agent's short-term interest. These maxims are called a "moral code", particularly when the long-term incentive to adhere to the code arises by way of the approval or disapproval of other agents who themselves adhere to the code.

This view of morality is a 'moral realist' rather than 'moral conventionalist' position when it is claimed that there is a theoretically best moral code, and that it may be morally permissible to flout the locally conventional moral code if that code is different from the best code.

I think this provides a variant of moral realism without invoking a Supreme Lawgiver. Kant's categorical imperative was another (seriously flawed, IMO) attempt to derive some moral rules using no other assumptions beyond human rationality and social lifestyle. The moral realist position may well be incorrect, but it is not a nonsensical position for an atheist to take.

comment by [deleted] · 2011-05-01T00:57:29.279Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks for this. Your first paragraph looks very clean to me -- not tendentious and even almost falsifiable. But can you tell me how I should understand "best" and "morally permissible" in the second paragraph? (Morally permissible according to the best maxims only, or morally permissible according to all maxims indicated in the first paragraph?)

comment by Perplexed · 2011-05-01T03:44:25.221Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

'Best' here means most advantageous to the agents involved - both the focal agent, and the other agents who join in the convention. What I have in mind here is something like the Nash Bargaining Solution, which is both unique and (in some sense) optimal.

"Morally permissible" by the best code, which is also the code mentioned in the first paragraph. What I am claiming is that the 'moral should' can be reduced to the 'practical self-interested should' if (and it is a big if) it is reasonable to treat the other agents as rational and well-informed.

comment by Nick_Tarleton · 2011-05-01T01:07:30.409Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

The position you describe is sensical, but it's not what people (at least on LW) who think "moral realism" is nonsensical mean by "morality". You're not saying anything about ultimate ends (which I'm pretty sure is what NMJablonski, e.g., means by "preferences"); the version of "moral realism" that gets rejected is about certain terminal values being spookily metaphysically privileged.

comment by Perplexed · 2011-05-01T03:57:48.369Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Actually, I am saying something about ultimate ends, at least indirectly. My position only makes sense if long-term ultimate ends become somehow 'spookily metaphysically privileged' over short-term ultimate ends.

My position still contains 'spookiness' but it is perhaps a less arbitrary kind of 'magic' - I'm talking about time-scales rather than laws inscribed on tablets.

comment by Nick_Tarleton · 2011-05-02T03:25:44.005Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

My position only makes sense if long-term ultimate ends become somehow 'spookily metaphysically privileged' over short-term ultimate ends.

How is this different from "if the agents under consideration care about the long run more than the short run"?

comment by Perplexed · 2011-05-02T04:02:07.160Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Well, I am attempting to claim here that there exists an objective moral code (moral realism) which applies to all agents - both those who care about the long term and those who don't. Agents who mostly care about the short term will probably be more ethically challenged than agents who easily and naturally defer their gratification. But, in this thread at least, I'm arguing that both short-sighted and long-sighted agents confront the same objective moral code. So, I apparently need to appeal to some irreducible spookiness to justify that long-term bias.

comment by NMJablonski · 2011-05-01T07:03:32.979Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

There exists a set of maxims which all intelligent and social agents find it in their long-term interest

I can see how with that definition of morality it could be sensibly theorized as objective. I don't think that sentence is true, as there are many people (e.g. suicide bombers) whose evaluations of their long-term interest are significant outliers from other agents.

comment by Perplexed · 2011-05-01T14:57:07.240Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

That one agent's preferences differ greatly from the norm does not automatically make cooperation impossible. In a non-zero-sum game of perfect information, there is always a gain to be made by cooperating. Furthermore, it is usually possible to restructure the game so that it is no longer zero-sum.

For example, a society confronting a would-be suicide bomber will (morally and practically) incarcerate him, if it has the information and the power to do so. And, once thwarted from his primary goal, the would-be bomber may find that he now has some common interests with his captors. The game is no longer zero-sum.

So I don't think that divergent interests are a fatal objection to my scheme. What may be fatal is that real-world games are not typically games with perfect information. Sometimes, in the real world, it is advantageous to lie about your capabilities, values, and intentions. At least advantageous in the short term. Maybe not in the long term.

comment by [deleted] · 2011-05-01T15:41:36.424Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

In a non-zero-sum game of perfect information, there is always a gain to be made by cooperating.

Can't I construct trivial examples where this is false? E.g. the one-by-two payoff matrices (0,100) and (1,-1).

comment by Perplexed · 2011-05-01T17:14:25.372Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW
  1. That is a zero-sum game. (Linear transformations of the payoff matrices don't change the game.)
  2. It is also a game with only one player. Not really a game at all.

ETA: If you want to allow 'games' where only one 'agent' can act, then you can probably construct a non-zero-sum example by offering the active player three choices (A, B, and C). If the active player prefers A to B and B to C, and the passive player prefers B to C and C to A, then the game is non-zero-sum since they both prefer B to C.

I suppose there are cases like this in which what I would call the 'cooperative' solution can be reached without any cooperation - it is simply the dominant strategy for each active player. (A in the example above). But excluding that possibility, I don't believe there are counterexamples.

comment by [deleted] · 2011-05-01T18:56:10.561Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Rather than telling me how my counterexample violates the spirit of what you meant, can you say what you mean more precisely? What you're saying in 1. and 2. are literally false, even if I kind of (only kind of) see what you're getting at.

comment by Perplexed · 2011-05-01T23:32:55.452Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

When I make it precise, it is a tautology. Define a "strictly competitive game" as one in which all 'pure outcomes' (i.e. results of pure strategies by all players) are Pareto optimal. Then, in any game which is not 'strictly competitive', cooperation can result in an outcome that is Pareto optimal - i.e. better for both players than any outcome that can be achieved without cooperation.

The "counter-example" you supplied is 'strictly competitive'. Some game theory authors take 'strictly competitive' to be synonymous with 'zero sum'. Some, I now learn, do not.

comment by NMJablonski · 2011-05-01T16:40:54.612Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

That one agent's preferences differ greatly from the norm does not automatically make cooperation impossible.

I wasn't arguing that cooperation is impossible. From everything you said there it looks like your understanding of morality is similar to mine:

Agents each judging possible outcomes based upon subjective values and taking actions to try to maximize those values, where the ideal strategy can vary between cooperation, competition, etc.

This makes sense I think when you say:

For example, a society confronting a would-be suicide bomber will (morally and practically) incarcerate him

The members of that society do that because they prefer the outcome in which he does not suicide attack them, to one where he does.

once thwarted from his primary goal, the would-be bomber may find that he now has some common interests with his captors

This phrasing seems exactly right to me. The would-be bomber may elect to cooperate, but only if he feels that his long-term values are best fulfilled in that manor. It is also possible that the bomber will resent his captivity, and if released will try again to attack.

If his utility function assigns (carry out martyrdom operation against the great enemy) an astronomically higher value than his own survival or material comfort, it may be impossible for society to contrive circumstances in which he would agree to long term cooperation.

This sort of morality, where agents negotiate their actions based upon their self-interest and the impact of others actions, until they reach an equilibrium, makes perfect sense to me.

comment by [deleted] · 2011-05-01T17:10:02.149Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I don't think that sentence is true, as there are many people (e.g. suicide bombers) whose evaluations of their long-term interest are significant outliers from other agents.

That's right, but this exception (people whose interests are served by violating the moral norm) itself has a large exception, which is that throughout most of the suicide bomber's life, he (rightly) respects the moral norm. Bad people can't be bad every second of their lives - they have to behave themselves the vast majority of the time if for no other reason than to survive until the next opportunity to be bad. The suicide bomber has no interest in surviving once he presses the button, but for every second of his life prior to that, he has an interest in surviving.

And the would-be eventual suicide bomber also, through most of his life, has no choice but to enforce moral behavior in others if he wants to make it to his self-chosen appointment with death.

If we try to imagine someone who never respects recognizable norms - well, it's hard to imagine, but for one thing they would probably make most "criminally insane" look perfectly normal and safe to be around by contrast.

comment by NMJablonski · 2011-05-01T17:22:21.745Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Upvoted. The events you describe makes sense and your reasoning seems valid. Do you think, based upon any of our discussion, that we disagree on the substance of the issue in any way?

If so, what part of my map differs from yours?

comment by [deleted] · 2011-05-01T17:36:08.305Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I'm withholding judgment for now because I'm not sure if or where we differ on any specifics.

comment by AdeleneDawner · 2011-05-01T08:47:08.663Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Interestingly, it seems to me that this definition would produce meta-maxims more readily than normal ones - "find out what your local society's norms are and stick to those" rather than "don't eat babies", for example.

Eliezer's Babyeaters and Superhappies both seemed to follow that meta-rule. (It was less obvious for the latter, but the fact that they had complex societies with different people holding different set roles strongly implies it.)

comment by Perplexed · 2011-05-01T14:31:48.961Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Interestingly, it seems to me that this definition would produce meta-maxims more readily than normal ones - "find out what your local society's norms are and stick to those" rather than "don't eat babies", for example.

Yes, it does produce meta-maxims in some sense. But meta-maxims can provide useful guidance. "Do unto others ..." is a meta-maxim. So is "Don't steal (anything from anybody)" or "Don't lie (about anything to anyone)"

As to whether this definition leads to the meta-maxim "find out what your local society's norms are and stick to those", that is explicitly not a consequence of this definition. Instead, the meta-maxim would be "work out what your local society's norms should be and set an example by doing that".

comment by Amanojack · 2011-05-03T00:28:48.713Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

The "intelligent" qualification could mean just about anything, and sort functions as an applause light on LW, and the "social" part sounds kind of collectivist. Besides that, this is just called having a low time preference, and is a common self-help concept. I don't see any need to label this morality.

comment by Jonathan_Graehl · 2011-05-03T00:59:16.395Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I didn't downvote, but you didn't address the crypto-Kantian angle at all. So it seems like you stopped reading too soon.

comment by Amanojack · 2011-05-03T01:05:18.692Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

You're right, I did stop reading carefully toward the end because the Kantian stuff looked like it was just a side note. I've now read it carefully, but I still don't see the significance.

comment by Jonathan_Graehl · 2011-05-03T00:56:40.281Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Interesting.

One possible attack: take the moral code and add "Notwithstanding all this, kill the humans." to the end. This should be superior for all the remaining agents, since humans won't be using up any resources after that's accomplished (assuming we can't put up enough of a fight).

A practical vulnerability to (perhaps unconsciously biased) self-interested gamers: untestable claims that although the moral code is at a local optimum, everyone needs to switch to a far away alternative, and then, after the new equilibrium, things will really be better. Sci-fi rejoinder: this explains why there are so many simulations :)

comment by Perplexed · 2011-05-03T01:47:33.352Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Yes, in a society with both human and non-human agents, if the humans contribute nothing at all to the non-humans, and only consume resources that might have been otherwise used, then the non-humans will judge the humans to be worthless. Worse than worthless. A drain to be eliminated.

But there is nothing special about my version of ethics in this regard. It is a problem that must be faced in any system of ethics. It is the FAI problem. Eliezer's solution is apparently to tell the non-human agents as they are created "Humans are to be valued. And don't you forget it when you self-modify." I think that a better approach is to make sure that the humans actually contribute something tangible to the well-being of the non-humans.

Perhaps neither approach is totally safe in the long run.

comment by thomblake · 2011-05-10T14:09:57.511Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

The moral realist position is nonsensical without an intelligence against whose preferences you can check.

This seems as well-motivated as the position that nothing can exist without someone to create it. That is, it seems intuitively true to a human since we privilege agency, but I don't see any contradiction, logical or otherwise, in having moral facts be real.

This question might reduce to the question of whether mathematical facts are "real", which might not make any more sense. Is there a sense in which there are "two" rocks here, even if there were no agent to count the rocks? Is there a sense in which murder is wrong, even if there was never anyone to murder or observe murder?

I think the only difficulties here are definitional (suggested by the word "sense" above) and the proper thing to do with a definitional dispute is to dissolve it. Most moral realists hereabouts are some sort of relativists (that is, we take it to be a "miracle" that we care about what's right rather than something else, and otherwise would have taken it to be a "miracle" that we care about something else instead of what's right, but that doesn't change what's right).

comment by NMJablonski · 2011-05-11T13:52:43.049Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Is there a sense in which there are "two" rocks here, even if there were no agent to count the rocks? Is there a sense in which murder is wrong, even if there was never anyone to murder or observe murder?

I can understand what physical conditions you are describing when you say "two rocks". What does it mean, in a concrete and substantive sense, for murder to be "wrong"?

comment by Peterdjones · 2011-05-11T15:02:51.936Z · score: -2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

What does it mean in a concrete and substantive sense for pi to be an irrational number?

comment by gscshoyru · 2011-05-11T16:02:23.241Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

This is doable... Let d be the length of the diameter of some circle, and c be the circumference of the same circle. Then if you have an integer number (m) of sticks of length d in a straight line, and an integer number (n) of sticks of length c in a different straight line, then the two lines will be of different lengths, no matter how you choose your circle, or how you choose the two integers m and n.

In general, if the axioms that prove a theorem are demonstrable in a concrete and substantive way, then any theorems proved by them should be similarly demonstrable, by deconstructing it into its component axioms. But I could be missing something.

There are sets of axioms that aren't really demonstrable in the physical universe, that mathematicians use, and there are different sets of axioms where different truths hold, ones that are not in line with the way the universe works. Non-euclidean geometry, for example, in which two parallel lines can cross. Any theorem is true only in terms of the axioms that prove it, and the only reason why we attribute certain axioms to this universe is because we can test them and the universe always works the way the axiom predicts.

For morality, you can determine right and wrong from a societal/cultural context, with a set of "axioms" for a given society. But I have no idea how you'd test the universe to see if those cultural "axioms" are "true", like you can for mathematical ones. I don't see any reason why the universe should have such axioms.

comment by Peterdjones · 2011-05-11T16:07:28.960Z · score: -3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

This is not doable concretely because you can only measure down to some precision.

comment by thomblake · 2011-05-11T15:09:07.335Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I can understand what physical conditions you are describing when you say "two rocks". What does it mean, in a concrete and substantive sense, for murder to be "wrong"?

I can give you two answers to this, one which maps better to this community and one which fits better with the virtue ethics tradition.

  1. There exists (in the sense that mathematical functions exist) a utility function labeled 'morality' in which actions labeled 'murder' bring the universe into a state of lower-utility. I make no particular claims about the proper way to choose such a utility function, just that there is one that is properly called 'morality', and moral disputes can be characterized as either disputes over which function to call 'morality' or disputes over what the output of that function would be given certain inputs.

  2. 'Good' and 'bad' are always evaluated in terms of effects upon a particular thing; a good hammer is one which optimally pounds in nails, a good horse is fast and strong, and a good human experiences eudaimonia. Murder is the sort of thing that makes one a bad human; it makes one less virtuous and thus less able to experience eudaimonia.

It could be the case that the terms 'good', 'bad', and 'eudaimonia' should be evaluated based on the preferences of an agent. But in that case it that does not make it any less the case that moral facts are facts about the world that one could be wrong about. For instance, if I prefer to live, I should not drink drain cleaner. If I thought it was good to drink drain cleaner, I would be wrong according to my own preferences, and an outside agent with different preferences could tell me I was objectively wrong about what's right for me to do.

As a side note, 'murder' is normative; it is tautologically wrong. Denying wrongness in general denies the existence of murder. It might be better to ask, "What does it mean for a particular sort of killing to be 'wrong'?", or else "What does it mean for a killing to be murder?"

comment by Peterdjones · 2011-05-11T15:34:24.084Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

'Good' and 'bad' are always evaluated in terms of effects upon a particular thing; a good hammer is one which optimally pounds in nails, a good horse is fast and strong, and a good human experiences eudaimonia. Murder is the sort of thing that makes one a bad human; it makes one less virtuous and thus less able to experience eudaimonia.

What is eudaimonia for...or does the buck stop there?

As a side note, 'murder' is normative; it is tautologically wrong.

And tautologies and other apriori procedures can deliver epistemic objectivity without the need for the any appeal to quasi empiricsim.

comment by thomblake · 2011-05-11T18:09:08.129Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

What is eudaimonia for...or does the buck stop there?

It was originally defined as where the buck stops. To Aristotle, infinite chains of justification were obviously no good, so the ultimate good was simply that which all other goods were ultimately for.

Regardless of how well that notion stands up, there is a sense in which 'being a good hammer' is not for anything else, but the hammer itself is still for something and serves its purpose better when it's good. Those things are usually unpacked nowadays from the perspective of some particular agent.

comment by Peterdjones · 2011-05-11T18:13:33.202Z · score: -4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

A good hammer is good for whatever hammers are for. You could hardly have a clearer example of an instrumental good. And your claim that all goods are for something is undermined by the way you are handling eudaimonia.

comment by thomblake · 2011-05-11T18:39:23.119Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

A good hammer is good for whatever hammers are for.

Yes, that's what I said above:

the hammer itself is still for something and serves its purpose better when it's good

your claim that all goods are for something is undermined by the way you are handling eudaimonia.

I don't think it is. I did not say I agreed with Aristotle that this sort of infinite regress is bad. Eudaimonia is the good life for me. All other things that are good for me are good in that they are part of the good life. It is the case that I should do what is best for me. As a side effect, being a good human makes me good for all sorts of things that I don't necessarily care about.

This probably reduces to a statement about my preferences / utility function, as long as those things are defined in the 'extrapolated' manner. That is, even if I thought it were the case that I should drink drain cleaner, and I then drank drain cleaner, it was still the case that I preferred not to drink drain cleaner and only did so because I was mistaken about a question of fact. This does not accord well with the usual English meaning of 'preference'.

Full disclosure: Am a moral egoist.

comment by Peterdjones · 2011-05-11T19:18:05.389Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

. Eudaimonia is the good life for me.

And are you good for something, or good for nothing :-) ?

. It is the case that I should do what is best for me

That is hardly uncontentious...

Am a moral egoist.

...but you probably know that.

comment by thomblake · 2011-05-11T19:43:52.896Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

And are you good for something, or good for nothing

I answered that:

As a side effect, being a good human makes me good for all sorts of things that I don't necessarily care about.

comment by NMJablonski · 2011-05-11T16:15:52.182Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Okay, we don't disagree at all.

There is an objective sense in which actions have consequences. I am always surprised when people seem to think I'm denying this. Science works, there is a concrete and objective reality, and we can with varying degrees of accuracy predict outcomes with empirical study. Zero disagreement from me on that point.

So, we judge consequences of actions with our preferences. One can be empirically incorrect about what consequences an action can have, and if you choose to define "wrong" as those actions which reduce the utility of whatever function you happen to care about, then sure, we can determine that objectively too. All I am saying is that there is no objective method for selecting the function to use, and it seems like we're in agreement on that.

Namely, we privilege utility functions which value human life only because of facts about our brains, as shaped by our genetics, evolution, and experiences. If an alien came along and saw humans as a pest to be eradicated, we could say:

"Exterminating us is wrong!"

... and the alien could say:

"LOL. No, silly humans. Exterminating you is right!"

And there is no sense in which either party has an objective "rightness" that the other lacks. They are each referring to the utility functions they care about.

comment by Peterdjones · 2011-05-11T16:17:58.127Z · score: -1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

And there is no sense in which either party has an objective "rightness" that the other > lacks. They are each referring to the utility functions they care about.

There is a sense in which one party is objectively wrong. The aliens do not want to be exterminated so they should not exterminate.

comment by NMJablonski · 2011-05-11T16:24:37.390Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

So, we're working with thomblake's definition of "wrong" as those actions which reduce utility for whatever function an agent happens to care about. The aliens care about themselves not being exterminated, but may actually assign very high utility to humans being wiped out.

Perhaps we would be viewed as pests, like rats or pigeons. Just as humans can assign utility to exterminating rats, the aliens could do so for us.

Exterminating humans has the objectively determinable outcome of reducing the utility in your subjectively privileged function.

comment by Peterdjones · 2011-05-11T16:31:17.534Z · score: -2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Inasmuch as we are talking about objective rightness we are talking are not talking about utility functions, because not everyone is running of the same utility function, and it makes sense to say some UFs are objectively wrong.

comment by NMJablonski · 2011-05-11T16:33:10.396Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

What would it mean for a utility function to be objectively wrong? How would one determine that a utility function has the property of "wrongness"?

Please, do not answer "by reasoning about it" unless you are willing to provide that reasoning.

comment by Peterdjones · 2011-05-11T16:41:43.586Z · score: -2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I did provide the reasoning in the alien example.

There is a sense in which one party is objectively wrong. The aliens do not want to be exterminated so they should not exterminate.

comment by NMJablonski · 2011-05-11T16:52:43.591Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Let's break this all the way down. Can you give me your thesis?

I mean, I see there is a claim here:

The aliens do not want to be exterminated so they should not exterminate.

... of the format (X therefore Y). I can understand what the (X) part of it means: aliens with a preference not to be destroyed. Now the (Y) part is a little murky. You're saying that the truth of X implies that they "should not exterminate". What does the word should mean there?

comment by Peterdjones · 2011-05-11T17:10:53.758Z · score: -4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

It means universalisable rules.

comment by NMJablonski · 2011-05-11T17:16:22.818Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

You're signalling to me right now that you have no desire to have a productive conversation. I don't know if you're meaning to do that, but I'm not going to keep asking questions if it seems like you have no intent to answer them.

comment by Peterdjones · 2011-05-11T17:30:39.599Z · score: -4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I.m busy, I've answered it several times before, and you can look it up yourself, eg;

"Now we can return to the “special something” that makes a maxim a moral maxim. For Kant it was the maxim’s universalizability. (Note that universalizability is a fundamentally different concept than universality, which refers to the fact that some thing or concept not only should be found everywhere but actually is. However, the two concepts sometimes flow into each other: human rights are said to be universal not in the sense that they are actually conceptualized and respected in all cultures but rather in the sense that reason requires that they should be. And this is a moral “should.”) However, in the course of developing this idea, Kant actually developed several formulations of the Categorical Imperative, all of which turn on the idea of universalizability. Commentators usually list the following five versions:

  1. “Act only according to a maximum that at the same time you could will that it should become a universal law.” In other words, a moral maxim is one that any rationally consistent human being would want to adopt and have others adopt it. The above-mentioned maxim of lying when doing so is to one’s advantage fails this test, since if there were a rule that everyone should lie under such circumstances no one would believe them – which of course is utterly incoherent. Such a maximum destroys the very point of lying.
  2. “Act as if the maxim directing your action should be converted, by your will, into a universal law of nature.” The first version showed that immoral maxims are logically incoherent. The phrase “as if” in this second formulation shows that they are also untenable on empirical grounds. Quite simply, no one would ever want to live in a world that was by its very nature populated only by people living according to immoral maxims.
  3. “Act in a way that treats all humanity, yourself and all others, always as an end, and never simply as a means.” The point here is that to be moral a maxim must be oriented toward the preservation, protection and safeguarding of all human beings, simply because they are beings which are intrinsically valuable, that is to say ends in themselves. Of course much cooperative activity involves “using” others in the weak sense of getting help from them, but moral cooperation always includes the recognition that those who help us are also persons like ourselves and not mere tools to be used to further our own ends.
  4. “Act in a way that your will can regard itself at the same time as making universal law through its maxim.” This version is much like the first one, but it adds the important link between morality and personal autonomy: when we act morally we are actually making the moral law that we follow.
  5. “Act as if by means of your maxims, you were always acting as universal legislator, in a possible kingdom of ends.” Finally, the maxim must be acceptable as a norm or law in a possible kingdom of ends. This formulation brings together the ideas of legislative rationality, universalizability, and autonomy. "
comment by nshepperd · 2011-05-12T06:51:40.412Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

You mean, "The aliens do not want to be exterminated, so the aliens would prefer that the maxim 'exterminate X', when universally quantified over all X, not be universally adhered to."?

Well... so what? I assume the aliens don't care about universalisable rules, since they're in the process of exterminating humanity, and I see no reason to care about such either. What makes this more 'objective' than, say, sorting pebbles into correct heaps?

comment by thomblake · 2011-05-11T18:19:07.101Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

"Exterminating us is wrong!" ... and the alien could say: "LOL. No, silly humans. Exterminating you is right!" And there is no sense in which either party has an objective "rightness" that the other lacks. They are each referring to the utility functions they care about.

Note that the definitional dispute rears its head in the case where the humans say, "Exterminating us is morally wrong!" in which case strong moral relativists insist the aliens should respond, "No, exterminating you is morally right!", while moral realists insist the aliens should respond "We don't care that it's morally wrong - it's shmorally right!"

There is also a breed of moral realist who insists that the aliens would have somehow also evolved to care about morality, as the Kantians who believe morality follows necessarily from basic reason. I think the burden of proof still falls on them for that, but unfortunately there aren't many smart aliens to test.

comment by Peterdjones · 2011-05-11T18:23:37.880Z · score: -4 (6 votes) · LW · GW

The aliens could say it's morally right. since no amount of realism/objectivism stops one being able to make false statements.

comment by thomblake · 2011-05-11T18:45:25.589Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

The aliens could say it's morally right.

That doesn't seem relevant. I was noting cases of what the aliens should say based on what they apparently wanted to communicate. I was thus assuming they were speaking truthfully in each case.

In other words, in a world where strong moral relativism was true, it would be true that the aliens were doing something morally right by exterminating humans according to "their morality". In a world where moral realism is true, it would be false that the aliens were doing something morally right by exterminating humans, though it might still be the case that they're doing something 'shmorally' right, where morality is something we care about and 'shmorality' is something they care about.

comment by Eugine_Nier · 2011-04-29T05:46:51.362Z · score: -2 (8 votes) · LW · GW

I never said anything about religion. Here I'm merely pointing out wedrifid's hypocrisy.

Sorry, to use such a strong word, but I honestly can't see the difference between what wedrifid called peter logically rude for doing, and what wedrifid is doing in the ancestor.

comment by NMJablonski · 2011-04-29T05:55:29.845Z · score: 1 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Wedrifid never said dashing babies against rocks was "wrong in the cosmic eyes of the universe". I suspect s/he values a culture that doesn't do that. That would be his or her personal value / preference.

We don't need to subscribe to your theory of absolute morals to prefer, support, or value things.

comment by wedrifid · 2011-04-29T07:59:04.489Z · score: -2 (8 votes) · LW · GW

Wedrifid never said dashing babies against rocks was "wrong in the cosmic eyes of the universe". I suspect s/he values a culture that doesn't do that. That would be his or her personal value / preference.

That seems like a likely assumption. For a start it is terribly unhygenic. All brains, blood and gore left around the place. Lots of crows picking at little bits of baby. Flies and maggots. Ants. A recipe for spreading plague.

comment by CuSithBell · 2011-05-02T17:35:17.982Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Okay, that may be so - but as I indicated by my response, I do.

I assert that most if not all of the people on the 'other side' of the metaethics argument you are participating in believe that morality exists, but as a sociological phenomenon rather than a metaphysical one (as you seem also to believe), and furthermore that morality not being metaphysical "adds up to normality," in the local parlance - it's still reasonable to disapprove of murder, etc.

comment by NMJablonski · 2011-05-02T17:49:46.888Z · score: 0 (4 votes) · LW · GW

sociological phenomenon ... still reasonable to disapprove of murder, etc.

Yup.

Could an agent with different preferences from ours reasonably approve of murder?

Yes to that too.

I very, very, strongly disapprove of terrorism. Terrorists, of course, would disagree. There is no objective sense in which one of us can be "right", unless you go out of your way to specifically define "right" as those actions which agree with one side or the other. The privileging of those actions as "right" still originates from the subjective values of whatever agent is judging.

Thanks, CuSithBell, I think you've done a good job of making the issue plain. It does indeed all add up to normality.

comment by CuSithBell · 2011-05-03T02:18:19.178Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Glad to hear : )

comment by Peterdjones · 2011-05-03T22:44:21.404Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I very, very, strongly disapprove of terrorism. Terrorists, of course, would disagree. There is no objective sense in which one of us can be "right", unless you go out of your way to specifically define "right" as those actions which agree with one side or the other.

There is a way in which someone can be wrong. If someone holds to a set of values that contains contradictions , they cannot claim to be right. Moral arguments in fact do often make appeals to consistency -- "if you support equal rights for women, you should support equal rights for gays"

comment by Marius · 2011-05-03T22:52:09.814Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Our culture certainly does like to slap around those whose arguments are inconsistent... to the point that I suspect more consistent moral codes are consistent because the arguer is striving for consistency over truth than because they've discovered moral truths that happen to be consistent. We may have reached the point where consistent moral codes deserve more skepticism than inconsistent ones.

comment by shokwave · 2011-04-29T05:28:28.373Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Preferences are pretty key here. I would say something like "wedrifid has a strong preference for making people who do not have strong preferences against baby-dashing feel low-status".

comment by wedrifid · 2011-04-29T05:51:22.130Z · score: 2 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Why do you ask? Do you believe it's "wrong" or something?

I do. But mostly I think it is incredibly amusing.

(Note: wedrifid was one of the people arguing that the terms "morality"/"right"/"wrong" are meaningless independent of preferences in the recent metaethics thread.)

As a matter of fact I wasn't. I was arguing against specific points that you (and at least one other person) were making. There is a sense that things are objectively right and wrong and do not necessarily include reference to preferences. This sense is so far removed from your usage that for most intents and purposes you would rightly consider me the 'other side'.

comment by Eugine_Nier · 2011-04-29T05:54:29.056Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

There is a sense that things are objectively right and wrong and do not necessarily include reference to preferences.

Ok, could you explain what you mean by this sense. This wasn't the impression I had of your position.

comment by NMJablonski · 2011-04-29T05:56:59.611Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

There is a sense that things are objectively right and wrong and do not necessarily include reference to preferences

I would be genuinely interested in hearing an explanation of this.

comment by wedrifid · 2011-04-29T06:33:16.380Z · score: 1 (5 votes) · LW · GW

I would be genuinely interested in hearing an explanation of this.

I'll give you a cliff notes version that strips out all sense of sophistication. And probably a lot of the accuracy too.

  • Take my personal preferences. Inclusive preferences - so what I would want after you take into account all my ethics and allowing for me caring about other people's preferences, etc.
  • Imagine those preferences are represented in Excel. There are references to all kinds of things, including other people's excel spreadsheets and to other cells representing my immediate desires.
  • Now copy all the values and do a 'right click, paste by value'. So now there is a list of all the values of what is right. But not necessarily reference to actual preferences (leaving aside now the possibility for objective reference to preferences, which are possible but not necessary).
  • Call the above 'should' or 'right'. It is an objective set of values and whatnot that is a feature of the universe and built into the very meaning of the word 'should'.
  • If you go and edit me in the future the value of should doesn't change.
  • If other people have different values the value of should it doesn't change what is 'right' except in so much as 'should' already took that into account via altruism.
  • If I edit myself (murder pill) then even that doesn't change what is right. It just means that I end up having wrong preferences because I made an error in judgement.
  • If someone goes and builds a time machine and changes the me of the present such that I would create a different 'paste by value' spreadsheet then the original version is still the value of should. That is, it isn't a reference to the values of me. It is a set of values that just so happen to match the overall preferences of me.
  • I can be wrong about 'right'. It isn't what I say or think. It is what I would think if I was superintelligent and overwhelmingly well informed about myself and the salient features of the universe.
  • If I had never existed the values in this spreadsheet would still be right. Nobody would know about them but that changes nothing! :P

This may sound complicated but it does match one of the senses in which we use 'should' or 'right' in common practice. It could be described as 'subjectively objective'. For the purpose of dealing with other people with different preferences it is not that much different from moral relativism. Even though 'should' has a single objective meaning (mine! :P) it is still the kind of thing that is best to completely cut out from conversation for the purpose of negotiation.

comment by NMJablonski · 2011-04-29T06:44:26.377Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I see. The origin of these values, which I will assume you could get precise enough to use as metrics for judging possible physical futures, is still effectively the utility function in your brain, no?

You could take a snapshot of your preference / value network at any time and define what is right accordingly, but I'm not clear on how it becomes a "feature of the universe". It is objectively true that different futures will have different scores according to that particular set of values and preferences, but paying any attention to that set is contingent on your existence and arrival at the state where the snapshot is taken.

It's odd. From what you've described I don't think we disagree at all on the substance of the situation, but are just using some words differently. I think this line may hold the key:

For the purpose of dealing with other people with different preferences it is not that much different from moral relativism.

:)

comment by wedrifid · 2011-04-29T07:26:55.020Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

It's odd. From what you've described I don't think we disagree at all on the substance of the situation, but are just using some words differently.

That is what I was trying to convey. :)

comment by Peterdjones · 2011-04-29T14:00:40.674Z · score: -4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

It is not a case of showing NMJ to be a Bad Person. I think most moral nihilists are not evil. But the point is that if he really does think murder is not wrong, he has a bad glitch in his thinking; and if he does think murder is wrong, but feels unable to say so, he has another glitch. IOW, he actually is in a double bind. If someone's reasoning has painted themselves into a corner, that is a problem someone else can legitimately point out. Politeness should not restrain us any more than it should with a panoply of other logical errors.

comment by JohnH · 2011-04-29T05:59:09.976Z · score: -4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

The dashing of babies against rocks is generally to be avoided. Vengeance is the Lord's and He will repay so, unless that verse is saying that whoever ended up destroying Babylon was a psychopath, it is most likely not scriptural in nature.

Perhaps you would like to ask your real question now?

comment by wedrifid · 2011-04-29T06:07:49.765Z · score: 3 (9 votes) · LW · GW

Perhaps you would like to ask your real question now?

That was my real question. Although I suppose you could generalise it to "Do you even believe all the parts that sound terrible are the word of God? Or are those parts 'translated incorrectly'?"

Because God and his angels are not very nice. In fact the angels made excellent adversaries in the Supernatural series - because they based them roughly on the biblical versions not the cultural versions.

comment by JohnH · 2011-04-29T06:35:10.734Z · score: -4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

"Do you even believe all the parts that sound terrible are the word of God?

If this was the question then you chose a poor place to attack. You should have gone with something in Genesis, Exodus, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, or Chronicles.

For instance, to answer a common objection on this site, the passover. The passover isn't something that can be brushed off as not being meant to be real as it is fundamental to the Jews and for the Christians is a sign of Christ. It also involves killing of babies.

To understand how the passover was moral it is needed to establish a few things: First, God works according to laws so while he (possibly?) could teleport people out of Egypt that would violate the agency (or free will as it is called) of everyone involved.

Second, Everyone that is under the age of 8 is not accountable for their sins.

Third, God is a utilitarian with our eternal happiness as His primary goal. Our current discomfort if it leads to our eventual modifying of our actions or desires to match what will ultimately bring us the most happiness is acceptable to Him. This can be seen in such things as the Atonement.

So God was not only attempting to get his people free but to also provide an experience that the Jews would remember through all generations. Also he was trying to convince the Egyptians that their gods were not gods.

So everyone that he killed that was younger than 8 was automatically saved. Death happens to everyone so when we die isn't terribly important to God, our eternal happiness is his goal.

So if one was a member of the group that was killed by God that was over 8 then one would have some decent evidence that the Egyptian gods were not able to provide salvation and that possibly the Jewish God could, this would hopefully cause them to convert to following God. If one was an Egyptian that was not killed by God but saw that all the first born were killed then this would provide strong evidence that the Egyptian gods were not gods and that the Jewish one was, so when one died one would be more willing to accept God. If one was Jewish then one would have strong evidence that God was indeed God and hopefully be less likely to stop following God.

Hopefully you can see how from Gods perspective the passover was overall a worthwhile investment. The Jews commemorate the event to this day so they clearly haven't forgotten, which was one of the goals of God.

There may be more to the calculus of the passover from Gods perspective, not being God I can't say I have covered everything. If one wishes to know more then one is always free to ask God about the subject.

comment by wedrifid · 2011-04-29T06:43:40.360Z · score: 2 (10 votes) · LW · GW

If this was the question then you chose a poor place to attack.

No, my original question was my question and made for the sake of personal interest and amusement.

Second, Everyone that is under the age of 8 is not accountable for their sins.

I know, that's why I make sure to kill everyone I meet at the age of seven years and six months. It's to save their eternal souls! Bite those bullets!

comment by JohnH · 2011-04-29T06:52:48.016Z · score: -6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

It's to save their eternal souls! Bite those bullets!

Doing this would be a good way of damning yourself. How familiar are you with the fall of Lucifer?

comment by NMJablonski · 2011-04-29T06:54:52.309Z · score: 0 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Are you playing devil's advocate, or are you a Mormon missionary here for our redemption?

Edit: Why was this downvoted?

comment by JohnH · 2011-04-29T06:59:04.092Z · score: -1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I am LDS, is there a problem with that?

comment by NMJablonski · 2011-04-29T07:00:51.051Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Not on my end. :)

Edit: And this?

comment by wedrifid · 2011-04-29T07:24:44.452Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Are you playing devil's advocate

Well, in this case it is God's advocate. Apparently I'm advocating for Lucifer.

comment by wedrifid · 2011-04-29T07:23:25.604Z · score: 2 (10 votes) · LW · GW

Doing this would be a good way of damning yourself.

John 15:13 doesn't go far enough.

Greater love has no one than this: that he lay down his soul for another.

How familiar are you with the fall of Lucifer?

Not nearly as familiar as I am with the voluntary fall of Jesus who, it is said, took the wrath of heaven upon himself so that we may be saved from the fires of hell. What Would Jesus Do?

comment by JohnH · 2011-04-29T07:30:19.805Z · score: -2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Let me clarify that, shooting 7 year olds (or forcing puberty on five year olds so as to create babies before the parents are 8 and killing the parents before they turn eight so that it is a systematic sustained process (asking your sunday school teachers about such questions (or others like what happens if you pushed an angel into a black hole) can get strange reactions out of them, by the way, and make everyone else think you are crazy, but you already do so there isn't much to lose in sharing this)) only makes sense from an LDS perspective, unless you are already a psychopath. If you already were a psychopath then me sharing this won't change much. If you are not LDS or a psychopath then killing seven year olds should already be morally objectionable enough without further explanation

. If you are LDS killing seven year olds counts as shedding innocent blood which is an unpardonable sin. Further, not allowing agency was the plan of Lucifer and the reason he fell from heaven. Therefore, one would be implementing the devils plan by killing seven year olds as well as committing an unpardonable sin. Assuming that besides gaining a body the other part of the purpose of life is to be tested in all things then attempting to prevent testing is contrary to the will of God. Further, assuming that God knows what He is doing better then you do, being omniscience and all, then implement such a strategy would result in no net change to which persons will be saved in the end and which ones will not be saved and can only result in your own damnation.

comment by AdeleneDawner · 2011-04-29T07:36:18.732Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

If God already knows which souls are going to be damned (as is implied by your claim that wedrifid wouldn't be able to change that), why do the testing in the first place?

comment by JohnH · 2011-04-29T07:47:55.440Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

So that we can know what we will do.

comment by wedrifid · 2011-04-29T07:37:01.615Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Replied to this when it was the edit in the ancestor.

comment by wedrifid · 2011-04-29T07:34:43.579Z · score: 1 (7 votes) · LW · GW

Let me clarify that, shooting 7 year olds (or forcing puberty on five year olds so as to create babies before the parents are 8 and killing the parents before they turn eight so that it is a systematic sustained process

Oooh, good thinking. Religion really isn't set up to handle munchkins!

(asking your sunday school teachers about such questions (or others like what happens if you pushed an angel into a black hole) can get strange reactions out of them

Angels should be no big deal. You can fit, like, a gazillion of them on the head of a pin so they shouldn't even feel much in the way of tidal forces. Don't Angels have teleportation powers anyway?

If you already were a psychopath then me sharing this won't change much.

I love the irony.

comment by JohnH · 2011-04-29T07:46:39.470Z · score: -2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

You can fit, like, a gazillion of them on the head of a pin so they shouldn't even feel much in the way of tidal forces. Don't Angels have teleportation powers anyway?

Not in the LDS perspective. For us there are three (sort of five) types of angels. There are the spirits of people that haven't been born, the spirits of people that are dead but not resurrected, and the people that have been resurrected. The other are people sent from God that are not dead, being both those that are mortal and those that have been translated. The mortal one is uninteresting, one could probably find a grad student willing to do the experiment with the promise of a PHD. The others are the more interesting ones, being what effects does gravity have on spirit matter (being that for the LDS spirit is a type of matter) and what effects would it have on a resurrected body or a translated body. Destruction of the spirit is not a possible outcome. I have determined that, unfortunately, God is not likely to allow test subjects to volunteer themselves for the experiment and/or provide a convenient black hole for said experiment. Presumably once one is resurrected one will gain that knowledge.

Something like Teleportation, I am unclear on the details.

comment by wedrifid · 2011-04-29T07:48:51.188Z · score: -2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

what effects would it have on a resurrected body or a translated body.

How are the bodies with being exposed to a vacuum indefinitely?

comment by JohnH · 2011-04-29T07:51:07.983Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I assume they would be fine, being immortal.

comment by wedrifid · 2011-04-29T07:54:08.361Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Physical beatings? And how much do they weight?

How much pressure can the immortal bodies endure? None of this (apart from mass) matters from the point of view of outside the event horizon. Just what things look like inside.

comment by wedrifid · 2011-04-29T06:08:48.189Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

to prove that variations or changes have not been introduced since the time of a hypothetical original text, copied from handwriting scribe to handwriting scribe.

And rocks. Don't forget the bit with the rocks.

comment by TeMPOraL · 2014-01-12T04:52:34.374Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

It's really, really hard -- I would say impossible -- to prove that variations or changes have not been introduced since the time of a hypothetical original text, copied from handwriting scribe to handwriting scribe.

It might be hard or even borderline impossible, but I do respect people who honestly try. I know for instance, that Jehovah's Witnesses did a lot of work in cross-corelating as many different copies of the scriptures as they could get their hands on to weed out mistranslations, copy errors, etc. when developing their own translation. So for whatever it's worth, it's nice that some people at least try.

comment by DSimon · 2010-12-28T15:49:00.754Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Agreed that consistency is very important. However, I think that your #3ers, even though they correctly push their system very hard, are actually behaving in a very irrational way.

Being willing to let inconsistencies slide (as the #1ers and #2ers do) violates the important rationalist rule of noticing when you are (or ought to be) confused. However, it's a much less dangerous response than chasing down confusion but refusing to let the results adjust your moment-to-moment world model! In other words, #3ers are only doing the first half of a scientific or mathematical process, which eliminates most of the benefit, but still is enough to give them a false sense of confidence in their own assertions.

The "fuzzy" thinkers, #1 and #2, are just sitting back and letting society guide them along the path of least resistance, often acknowledging (particularly in the case of #2ers) that they have only minimal confidence in their own knowledge. That's not particularly rational, but it at least isn't actively pushing things in a bad direction.

I guess to put it another way: not all changes make things worse, but anything that makes things worse must be a change. The volume of choice-space that makes the world a crappier place is much smaller than the volume that makes things better. Because of that, overconfidence can be much worse than underconfidence, though both are bad.

comment by Gray_Area · 2007-12-25T00:26:57.000Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

"Sometimes I can feel the world trying to strip me of my sense of humor."

If you are trying to be funny, the customer is always right, I am afraid. The post wasn't productive, in my opinion, and I have no emotional stake in Christianity at all (not born, not raised, not currently).

comment by Lida · 2007-12-25T01:17:45.000Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

What makes Elizer so sure Mary wasn't a slut?

comment by James_D._Miller · 2007-12-25T01:36:07.000Z · score: -9 (11 votes) · LW · GW

Eliezer, it was irrational of you to write this post. You must assign a non-zero probability to the proposition that the Biblical Mary was the mother of God. This is especially true since so many people believe that she was and by your own beliefs you must give this some weight. Well, if Mary is the mother of God and if Hell is real then you have just decreased your afterlife utility by an amount greater than being tortured for 3^^^3 years. Thus, there was a significant negative utility to your having written this post. So to prove that you are committed to rationality, please write another post apologizing for insulting Mary.

comment by FAWS · 2011-04-29T14:32:19.122Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

You neglected the non-zero probability that whoever is running this simulation is sufficiently amused by the story to grant Eliezer an equally large reward.

comment by Sam3 · 2007-12-25T02:49:19.000Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Anna, if you're still reading this thread, do you have a blog? I read some of your comment on earlier religion posts and was intrigued by your point of view.

comment by Al_T · 2007-12-25T03:27:57.000Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Of course the story above is not at all the story that Christian's tell. But yes, if someone believed in a virgin birth after hearing the above story they would be crazy.

Merry Christmas!

comment by Carl_Shulman · 2007-12-25T03:33:19.000Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

James,

There are a variety of possible scenarios under which absurdly vast positive and negative utility could be generated, e.g. strange laws of physics. If a scenario for vast utility or disutility appears internally inconsistent and strongly disconfirmed by empirical evidence, as with Christianity, it can easily be dominated by the possibility that we will discover exotic physics enabling the generation of vast positive utility. Then, if promoting more rational thought and action enhances our likelihood of achieving such an outcome (e.g. by creating superintelligence that shares our values) this benefit can outweigh religious concerns.

Further, the egoist 'Hell' version of Pascal's wager might be bypassed by committing to acquiring vast computational resources and simulating vast numbers of copies of your life experiences. The resulting dilution of 'Hellworlds' would vastly reduce the expectation that any particular being with your current experiences will experience vast torment.

comment by Tiiba2 · 2007-12-25T04:04:43.000Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Am I the first to laugh at Eliezer's scenario?

It's very simple: Mary was much more likely to be a liar than a virgin mother. This is true even if you assume that there are virgin mothers who are their own granny.

And the point is even simpler: don't ignore the outlandishness of a claim just because everyone believes it.

(But I would also not advise you to judge a claim according to an unbeliever's caricature. Make sure it's not a strawman.)

comment by James_D._Miller · 2007-12-25T04:10:32.000Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Carl,

Are you sure the dilution of Hellworlds would work if, given that you do something today that causes you to be damned, all future copies you make of yourself will spend eternity in Hell?

comment by Caledonian2 · 2007-12-25T04:28:06.000Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW
This is especially true since so many people believe that she was and by your own beliefs you must give this some weight.

Except that no sane person, Eliezer possibly included, believes this.

comment by Robert3 · 2007-12-25T04:41:02.000Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

"Sometimes I can feel the world trying to strip me of my sense of humor."

Don't worry Eliezer, I found it funny even if others didn't! =D Merry Christmas from a fellow non-believer.

comment by Sean3 · 2007-12-25T05:40:35.000Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Maybe I'm mistaken, but I think this is a pretty good example of how easily people get hung up on a false dichotomy.

comment by TGGP4 · 2007-12-25T06:43:43.000Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I'm trying to remember where I read the theory that the original Jamesian Christians (really a sect of judaism) didn't believe in the virgin-birth but that it was later added in to appeal to pagan/Hellenistic cult-followers who had plenty of stories of miraculous children-of-gods.

comment by Jey_Kottalam2 · 2007-12-25T06:44:08.000Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

It's interesting that everyone gets into a tizzy whenever someone looks at religion and just tells it like it is, but the same doesn't happen with any other subject. We have some strange reverence for religion that we just don't have when it comes to something like economic models. The fact that everyone is so incredibly offended by religious beliefs being criticized doesn't justify avoiding the topic; we don't need to keep our mouths shut just because someone might irrationally be offended by frank and honest commentary. I don't think that any economist is going to tell you to stop criticizing his favorite economic model just because it "offends" him, at worst he's going to tell you that you're an idiot, and maybe even explain why in detail. But for some reason we as a society afford a kind of sacred protection to religion and tell each other not to even consider criticizing religion because it might hurt someone's feelings.

On the other hand, there's an entirely practical set of reasons to not come right out with the criticism. I fully think that religions should be subject to the same level of frank discussion, analysis, and criticism as any other set of beliefs or opinions, but it may be more practical to soften the message in today's social climate. It doesn't matter whether or not what you're saying is actually offensive, what matters is avoiding the perception of vitriol if you want to get through to people who are easily offended. As it stands, posts like this just preach to the choir and piss off everyone else. Once the reader/listener has a negative emotional reaction you're not going to be able to communicate your message to them, they're just going to block it off and not even digest what you're saying.

Anyway, this post is meant to preach to the choir; the point is to show us choir members that we don't recognize the absurdity of religious myths even if we do recognize them as myths. It's supposed to show that we still treat absurd religious myths as reasonable things to believe in -- that we fall into the trap of protecting religion out of "respect" as I described above. The comments above show that it didn't work 100%. ;-)

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2010-12-26T23:20:45.042Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

It's interesting that everyone gets into a tizzy whenever someone looks at religion and just tells it like it is, but the same doesn't happen with any other subject.

I think you could get similar results for insisting that nations are just something people made up and should be judged on utilitarian grounds.

comment by RichardKennaway · 2010-12-27T11:57:24.161Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

It's interesting that everyone gets into a tizzy whenever someone looks at religion and just tells it like it is, but the same doesn't happen with any other subject.

Larry Summers, Julian Assange, Stephen McIntyre, and Bruce Charlton might disagree, unless you redefine "religion" to mean all the things that people get into a tizzy about in preference to discussing the evidence. (As some would.)

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2010-12-27T13:05:45.977Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

You can add Jocelyn Elders to your list, and matters relating to sex and young people generally.

Thanks for the Charlton reference-- I'd never heard of him, but he seems somewhat sensible about depression.

comment by katydee · 2010-12-27T14:57:56.809Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Julian Assange doesn't tell it like it is, though the point in general stands.

comment by RichardKennaway · 2010-12-27T15:09:46.874Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Julian Assange doesn't tell it like it is, though the point in general stands.

Do you mean that you disagree with what he says about the value of transparency in government, or that he disagrees with what he says?

In listing those four people I did not intend to imply that the things that these people have famously said are all true, only that all of them would see themselves as telling it like it is -- that is, expressing what they judge to be true, in spite of pressures to the contrary. And they are doing so in various areas other than religion.

Nobody has a hot line to The Truth. Everyone who is not lying believes they are telling the truth, whether what they are saying is true or not.

comment by shokwave · 2010-12-27T16:07:27.732Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Unsure of your point. Unless you are talking about his public statements (I will grant you that), Assange provides factual documents created by the organisation in question. These are records of corruption or abuse. This is about as 'telling it as it is' as you can get, unless you mean the semantic difference between "Assange tells it like it is" and "Assange leaks documents that record companies telling it like it is".

comment by katydee · 2010-12-28T00:57:45.063Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Well, just look at the "collateral murder" case. The official government story there was actually closer to the truth than the WikiLeaks version-- WikiLeaks provided more information, yes, but they did so in a skewed/biased way that actually acted to obscure the truth.

comment by shokwave · 2010-12-28T05:28:40.702Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

IIRC they released a video from an American helictoper, calling it "collateral murder". The video showed a bunch of people, some with guns, milling about in the street. The gunners misidentify the journalists' cameras as weapons. They open fire on the group, then later open fire on a van that attempts to pick up one of the badly wounded men.

The official government story was that American troops were hit by small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades, called in reinforcements and attack helicopters, and in the ensuing fight 9 insurgents and 2 journalists were killed. “There is no question that coalition forces were clearly engaged in combat operations against a hostile force,” from Lt. Col. Scott Bleichwehl.

Were these the official government story and the WikiLeaks version you were familiar with? Because by any reasonable definition of 'truth', the government's version is factually wrong and obscures the entire situation, whereas the WikiLeaks version is factually correct and obscures nothing, excepting its use of the word murder.

comment by katydee · 2010-12-28T15:18:03.667Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Yes.

The fact that the journalists' cameras were misidentified as weapons is a red herring, because they were still with a group of people armed with assault rifles and at least one rocket launcher, and engaging the group was justified. WikiLeaks focuses on the single (irrelevant) misidentification and also frames the engagement as "murder," neglecting to point out the weapons that the others were carrying.

In my view, the government version is not factually wrong-- nine insurgents and two journalists were killed, after all, and the other engagements mentioned were not shown in that video-- and the WikiLeaks version is. If that means I have an unreasonable definition of 'truth,' so be it, but the case seems fairly clear to me.

comment by Carl_Shulman · 2007-12-25T07:54:28.000Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

James,

Basement-level universes with Christian gods are much less probable than a chance at vast computing power through exotic physics. Christian gods must split their computational power across large numbers of beings, while my future selves in universes with vast resources could focus a large fraction of their capabilities on simulating their pasts.

comment by LemmusLemmus · 2007-12-25T10:10:42.000Z · score: 1 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Elizer,

you are misreading me.

I did not argue that belief in virgin birth (which many, possibly most, Christians do not believe in anyway) is unridiculous. It is ridiculous. I explicitly called it "silly".

But the post did not just argue that Mary's pregnancy came about in the normal way, you had to suggest that she had had sex with multiple men - a behaviour which most Christians would feel is deeply wrong.

The post is not meant to educate, it is meant to offend.

And that is both unhelpful and puerile.

comment by Leif · 2007-12-25T10:21:00.000Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Devil's advocate (literally) on xmas day, here we go:

Premise 1: The Bible contains some useful guidelines regarding interpersonal ethics. Premise 2: SOME people may not adhere to such guidelines absent metaphysical threats (e.g. damnation) or a public shaming (for going against doctrine).

In other words, I'm not convinced that widespread indoctrination MUST always yield worse results (in terms of the ethical behaviors within a group) than a widespread 'understanding' that all people are to think for themselves.

Say we come up with a (more or less comprehensive, easily interpretable) list of ethical guidelines that must be respected to maintain a stable, basically peaceful culture. Can we expect everyone to understand the reasoning behind the list, to comprehend how it functions to maintain prosperity? That neglecting it is actually perilous, in the long run (i.e. can they see past the immediate payoff of defection)? I don't know for sure, but I tend to think that such philosophy eludes Joe Everydude. In that case, is it still a mistake to propagate some crazy, blatantly false beliefs if it helps to maintain a baseline ethical, umm, equilibrium?

Incidentally, I'm not saying that this is how Christianity functions; most of it lost sight of the proverbial forest long ago. I AM saying that I don't see an argument against mind control via cults for those who would eschew ethics, in the absence of any indoctrination programme. Is it possible that vanilla-flavored justice isn't enough to deter some people?

comment by Ben_Jones · 2007-12-25T10:32:30.000Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Everyone,

Get over yourselves. It's Christmas! If you're offended by the post, you're seeking to take offence.

I like the reference to 'coming out as an atheist'. I had to wait to leave my little town for university before I threw off the Catholic mantle, but I know deep inside that the inherent sense of guilt they spend all their time fostering will be with me for a long time. Inherent Guilt Bias - deconstruct that one.

comment by Alan3 · 2007-12-25T11:09:28.000Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

How is a post like this any more offensive than a person trying to convince you that the virgin birth is actually a fact?

comment by Alan3 · 2007-12-25T11:10:12.000Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

How is a post like this any more offensive than a person trying to convince you that the virgin birth is actually a fact?

comment by LemmusLemmus · 2007-12-25T11:53:40.000Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

"How is a post like this any more offensive than a person trying to convince you that the virgin birth is actually a fact?"

I, for one, never said so. But I hold some people to higher standards than others. Call it a bias if you like.

comment by James_Blair · 2007-12-25T13:30:43.000Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

The post is not meant to educate, it is meant to offend.
It wasn't meant to educate as it's filed under humour (or a word spelled somewhat similarly). Don't forget--especially during the festive season--the possibility of alternate explanations, you might not share his sense of humour?

comment by steven · 2007-12-25T13:45:57.000Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

James D. Miller:

In the extremely unlikely case that the whole Christianity thing is true, there may be 10^30+ future souls at stake depending on the combined decisions of at most 10^10 people; from an expected utility point of view those should dominate all decisions, unless you think you're forced by rationality to consider your own afterlife more important than that of (say) a billion billion others.

comment by Caledonian2 · 2007-12-25T14:57:19.000Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW
The post is not meant to educate, it is meant to offend.

Sometimes being offended is a necessary part of one's education.

comment by Q_the_Enchanter · 2007-12-25T17:26:55.000Z · score: 10 (10 votes) · LW · GW

Right. It's one thing to send up the inanity of the Jesus myth. But it's quite another to cast Mary as sexually liberated. Eliezer, how dare you!

comment by Nastunya · 2007-12-25T18:20:22.000Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

There's nothing offensive about the post. I just wish it were funnier and less predictable. I'm with LemmusLemmus on this: it's too bad that the fifteen-year-old's tone of provocative discovery ends up distracting from Eliezer's obviously valid point -- that, yes, the story of the virgin birth is pretty wacky as stories go.

comment by J_Thomas · 2007-12-25T18:33:19.000Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I didn't think it was tremendously funny. But I thought it was funny enough to recite the whole thing to my wife while she sat at her own keyboard, instead of just send her a link. She didn't think it was tremendously funny. But she politely stopped typing to listen, and she laughed some.

It seems to me like at least a B effort. The humor was in everybody wanting to believe.

In reality, wasn't there a claim that the midwife confirmed Mary was a virgin? If I lived in the village I'd probably accept that as sufficient evidence, though in my namesake's tradition I'd rather stick my own fingers in to confirm it.

For myself it's pretty much irrelevant. There was an ecumenical joke when I was a kid -- a preacher compared the different protestant faiths as being like different roads that could be taken to get your cotton to a cotton gin. And when you get there, the engineer isn't going to ask you "Which road did you take?" He's going to ask you, "How good is your cotton?".

By the same reasoning, when Jesus comes to me with a morality for me to follow, I don't ask him "What miracles did you have about your birth?". I ask him, "How good is your morality?".

comment by Chris · 2007-12-25T18:34:41.000Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

There's a lot of confusion here. 1) Don't confuse respect for religion (unreasonable) with respect for people who have deep religious beliefs, however daft. In some abuse of religion I sense a lot of contempt for religious people. I try to fight my contemptuous side, knowing how strong it is. 2) Don't confuse 'the harm done by religion' with harm done by people, who would have done it anyway , who find in religion a convenient cloak. 3) This is not the place for a post on the human need for religion or the rag-bag of needs it subsumes (social, political, historical, personal identity definition, ethical, the love of the marvellous, transcendental etc.). However, I strongly suspect that some of those same needs might not be a million miles away from the motivations that attach people so strongly to the aims of a certain Institute..... Saul/Paul was not the first nor the last human to have radically changed his beliefs while maintaining the underlying personality structure which drove him to give himself so totally to the first set, then to the second. And to found his own personal religion, but that's another story.

comment by Caledonian2 · 2007-12-25T19:05:00.000Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW
with respect for people who have deep religious beliefs, however daft.

Why should we respect people who have daft beliefs?

comment by g · 2007-12-25T19:35:00.000Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Jey, I think the dichotomy between religious and other beliefs (in how much offence disagreement causes) isn't so stark as it's sometimes painted. Random example: US politics; how would a staunch Reaganite Republican react to the suggestion that Reagan's policies were all deliberately designed simply to funnel money to his big-business pals? For that matter, how do biologists generally react when creationists accuse them (in effect) of a gigantic conspiracy to suppress the truth? I think there's at least some offence taken in both cases, and those accusations (rather than mere disagreement) seem to me to be parallel to Eliezer's story.

Caledonian, we should respect people who have daft beliefs for the same reason(s) as we respect other people for. Someone who views people as mere repositories of beliefs, and doles out respect solely on that basis, should not respect people whose beliefs are, on balance, daft. I don't think that's how most people operate. And having some daft beliefs isn't the same as having daft-on-balance beliefs.

Eliezer, I think you improved the story when you softened the suggestion of extreme promiscuity on Mary's part. The bit about crucifixion is (to my taste) an unsuccessful flourish, not least because (apologies for literal-mindedness here) the Romans would not have crucified someone for having his mother claim he was conceived by direct divine intervention. But having the friend be called Betty is a nice touch. (Wasn't she supposed to be a relation, not just a friend?)

comment by [deleted] · 2007-12-25T19:37:00.000Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

"There's a lot of confusion here."

Yes, and I'd say the biggest confusion is construing Mary's promiscuity as an accidental, gratuitous part of the joke. The whole point of the joke is that such promiscuity would be the first, most natural inference to draw were a self-proclaimed virgin to tell us that she'd been made pregnant by God.

comment by Unknown3 · 2007-12-25T19:38:00.000Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Caledonian, one reason to do that is that everyone has daft beliefs once in a while. It isn't surprising that you ask the question, however, since you show no respect for those with whom you disagree on Overcoming Bias. Since you disagree with them, you presumably think that their beliefs are false, and consequently (according to your logic) that they themselves are unworthy of respect.

comment by Q_the_Enchanter · 2007-12-25T19:38:00.000Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Sorry, that last comment was mine; didn't want to leave it unsigned.

comment by Nigel_Mellish · 2007-12-25T21:19:00.000Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

"Sometimes I can feel the world trying to strip me of my sense of humor."

That might be one way to look at it. Another is that the prior information you have about your sense of humor isn't as informative as you think it is - :)

comment by Joseph_Hertzlinger · 2007-12-25T21:35:00.000Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

One way to look at the Christmas story is to compare it to another story (Easter) in the same religion. The Easter story looks coherent even when the serial numbers are filed off. The experiment was done by C. S. Lewis, who was able to write a coherent story (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe) that included a disguised version of the Easter story. As far as I know, that hasn't been done for Christmas. This makes the Christmas story look less coherent.

comment by Michael_M._Butler · 2007-12-25T21:49:00.000Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

[[
Rabbi: Joseph, that is just so... unbelievably...

(Mary holds her breath.)

Rabbi: NEAT!
]]

You know, Eliezer, sometimes that's the way things like the Friendly AI effort (and Alcor, and a few other things) strike me.

I want to believe.

Does that make me as gullible as Joseph, or as opportunistic as the Rabbi?

Too soon to tell.

comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2007-12-25T22:01:00.000Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

You know, Eliezer, sometimes that's the way things like the Friendly AI effort (and Alcor, and a few other things) strike me.

I want to believe.

Does that make me as gullible as Joseph, or as opportunistic as the Rabbi?

As gullible as Joseph, unless you profit by it somehow, in which case you would be as opportunistic as the Rabbi.

But there are much nicer things to believe in than Friendly AI or Alcor. Why not believe you'll go to heaven regardless, and trump mere FAI and mere cryonics combined, so long as you're believing things you want to believe?

comment by g · 2007-12-26T00:38:00.000Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Joseph, I think the externals of the Christmas and Easter stories (virgin birth arranged by God; agony, death, resurrection, again arranged by God) are pretty much equally coherent. (Coherence isn't their problem.) But the point of each story, for Christians, is something much harder to swallow: Christmas is supposed to be about the Incarnation (with Jesus somehow being entirely human, just as much as we are, and entirely God, etc.) and Easter about the Atonement (where the whole death-and-resurrection thing somehow enables God to forgive the sins of humanity when he couldn't before). Both seem pretty incoherent to me.

They both make good stories, if you don't think too hard about how they're supposed to work. I'm not sure that has much to do with their coherence. (Take a look at the "explanation" in TLTWATW for the Easter-like event. Lewis isn't even trying to deal with the really doubtfully-coherent bits, but he still resorts to entirely arbitrary stuff about Deep Magic and Deeper Magic.)

It's quite well established that stories tend to feel more plausible if they include a wealth of details, even though the presence of those details actually makes the story less probable. (It's more likely that you'll be abducted by aliens than that you'll be abducted by aliens so that they can perform weird sexual experiments on you.) So I'd be very hesitant about taking the fact that a story can be told satisfyingly as a sign that it's less improbable, or more coherent, than a story that can't be told so satisfyingly.

comment by Caledonian2 · 2007-12-26T02:34:00.000Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW
Caledonian, one reason to do that is that everyone has daft beliefs once in a while.

That is not a valid reason to reject the idea that daft beliefs are just cause to hold someone in disrespect.

Is that actually the best you can manage?

comment by Kyle4 · 2007-12-26T03:00:00.000Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

You are aware that this line of thought is about 1950 years old, right? The story that Jesus was the bastard son of somebody has been around for about as long as the line that he was born of a virgin. It's always sounded absurd, which is why it has always been the first thing Christian apologists have had to defend, after the resurrection.

It was a mildly amusing variation, but I think it still falls in the category of Godzilla and a house. It was probably funny in the 2nd century, but it's gotten pretty lame by now.

comment by eric2 · 2007-12-26T03:04:00.000Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

In the spirit, from Life of Brian:

"Oh, it's blessed are the MEEK! Oh, I'm glad they're getting something, they have a hell of a time. "

comment by Michael_M._Butler · 2007-12-26T04:07:00.000Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Why not believe you'll go to heaven regardless, and trump mere FAI and mere cryonics combined, so long as you're believing things you want to believe?

Because then I won't get to go to Dresden Codak's Secular Heaven. It's a Catch-22.

comment by K._Larson · 2007-12-26T04:20:00.000Z · score: 4 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Eliezer, I'd like to refer you to your post on awful political art. What purpose does the above sketch serve? Is this is a new argument why the orthodox religious christological position is invalid? Are you expressing a newly adopted belief? Do you believe that your readership hasn't considered the possibility that the virgin birth might have been a sham? Or are you just slugging The Enemy good and hard and laughing about it? How is this different than an atheist adaptation of a hymn? It introduces no new information and serves only to delineate the boundaries of your belief group (is it Blue, Eliezer, or Green?) and the scorn that you bear for those who do cheer for your side.

Check of proof: would this have any value AT ALL if "Joseph" and "Mary" were swapped out for "Mike" and "Helen" and "Rabbi" were changed to "Mayor Wilkins" and "God" to "Elvis"?

Go ahead, paste into Word and replace the names. If you so much as chuckle, you are easily amused indeed. Awful Political Art. For Shame, Eliezer.

comment by Unknown3 · 2007-12-26T05:08:00.000Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Caledonian, if you add the premise that some people should be respected, it is a logically valid and necessary conclusion (given that all people at some point have daft beliefs) that not all people who hold daft beliefs should be disrespected.

However, that is certainly not the best I can do. I could think of a long list of reasons for respecting such people: much the same reasons why you would do much better to show some respect for the authors and readers of Overcoming Bias. For one thing, you would have a much better chance of persuading them of your position, and if your position is true, then this is a very good effect. For another, everyone (even people holding daft beliefs) also knows some things that other people don't know, so if your respect is based on knowledge (as you seem to imply) then everyone should be respected. One last obvious point: most people will not respect someone who does not respect them: this is why you are not respected by those in this forum. But perhaps you enjoy this anyway?

comment by g · 2007-12-26T12:16:00.000Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

K Larson, I think Eliezer was wrong about bad political jokes, for two reasons. Firstly, a joke depends on its context, and it may not be possible to depoliticize a joke without losing something essential in the context. Secondly, like it or not, most of us do find it funny to see a disliked powerful figure get their comeuppance, which means that when assessing how good a joke is it's an error to penalize it for getting some of its laughs that way.

(But he was right when he said that finding what would otherwise be a bad joke funny is evidence that its target is playing the Hated Enemy role for you. Eliezer has been quite open about the fact that he greatly dislikes religion.)

And, for what it's worth, I think Eliezer's little drama does introduce one idea that not everyone's thought of (I don't claim that it's new, but novelty as such isn't all that valuable): that preservation of self-esteem might be an element in why the virgin-birth story succeeded. For what it's worth, though, I think it much more likely to have arisen some time after the events themselves than to have been made up on the spot.)

comment by Caledonian2 · 2007-12-26T14:05:00.000Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW
Caledonian, if you add the premise that some people should be respected, it is a logically valid and necessary conclusion (given that all people at some point have daft beliefs) that not all people who hold daft beliefs should be disrespected.

No, it doesn't. You're ignoring the possibility that respect can (and should!) vary across time. What if the "some people" who should be respected is the set of people who aren't holding daft beliefs?

More importantly, your belief that everyone holds daft beliefs at some point is daft.

You should be more careful about making assumptions.

comment by J_Thomas2 · 2007-12-26T14:41:00.000Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

"Check of proof: would this have any value AT ALL if "Joseph" and "Mary" were swapped out for "Mike" and "Helen" and "Rabbi" were changed to "Mayor Wilkins" and "God" to "Elvis"?"

K Larson, I tried that and I found it much more funny that way.

However, I couldn't help but think about Jesus while I was reading the story, and that probably had something to do with it. I'm afraid it turns into an even more effective political joke against Jesus when it's Mike and Mayor Wilkins, the absurdity shines through even more obviously. And from a christian perspective it isn't quite as pointed because it's obviously stupid for these people to think they have Jesus reborn. "Who do you think you are, Jesus Christ?" Although yet again, aren't we due for something like that right around now?

So the story becomes much richer and more ambiguous with the different names. At first sight it may be an obvious anti-christian joke and then it deserves some thought. And if Jesus did come back would he destroy the American empire? Would he be declared incompetent and sedated?

comment by Kenny · 2013-01-21T21:22:16.351Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Joshua: A Parable for Today

comment by Unknown3 · 2007-12-26T14:46:00.000Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Caledonian, can you give an example of someone who has never held a daft belief?

Other than yourself, of course, since such a suggestion would seem to indicate bias. On the other hand, your disrespect towards all others with whom you disagree (which seems to be everyone on some topic or other) seems to suggest that you believe that they all hold daft beliefs.

comment by Conny · 2007-12-26T16:21:00.000Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

That story made my day. So ... Monty Pythonesque. Being a child of former of East Germany I experienced myself how ridiculous such stories sound if you were not raised to believe them.

comment by Nastunya · 2007-12-26T16:28:00.000Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Caledonian doesn't want to say he's never met a person who had not at some time held a daft belief. I'll venture further on his behalf: he most likely respects some of the people who occasionally hold these daft beliefs, if, on balance, their beliefs end up being good ones and if these people have mechanisms in place to weed out the bad beliefs.

If that's so, then his position is actually quite sensible: it rewards good beliefs, holds people to high standards, and it expresses optimism about possibility of change in those committed to and skilled at it.

comment by Jay4 · 2007-12-26T20:12:00.000Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

A most amusing take on the issue! And yes, all of these tales (or myths, really) sound rather weird to outsiders. If having that pointed out stings, maybe it is the lesson you needed today.

comment by Caledonian2 · 2007-12-26T20:39:00.000Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW
Caledonian, can you give an example of someone who has never held a daft belief?

You've misunderstood the issue. When I find that someone holds a ridiculous belief, I lose whatever respect I might have had for that person. When they reject the belief, I respect their integrity and desire for truth.

No one who, for example, insists that the Earth is hollow and contains Saucer Men which come out and abduct people for sexual experiments, given the existing evidence, is worthy of respect. They are in fact worthy of disrespect, and a great deal of it.

A person who comes to recognize that such a belief is not only incorrect but deeply stupid is worthy of a great deal of respect.

comment by Alan_Crowe · 2007-12-28T21:57:00.000Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Perhaps this post needs to be rehosted at http://www.sufferingfrombias.com for it gives no suggestion or hypothesis about overcoming bias. Here are three.

ONE: Friendships with people from different cultures helps one to realise that stuff one was brought up to accept sounds deeply weird to those who first encounter it as adults.

TWO: There are tells: little warning glitches. The trouble is that from the inside the tell doesn't make sense, but human memory depends on embedding items in networks of meaning, so the tells will not embed and get forgotten. An example from my personal life is reading about the recent shooting spree in Finland that left eight dead. On comment on this was that it was a big shock because the standard Finish murder involves a man going on a fishing trip with his best friend, knifing him during a drunken row, and, overcome by remorse, turning himself in.

I found the standard Finish murder incomprehensible. I could never imagine doing anything like that. Recently I've come to realise that I'm the odd one out. Perhaps I have an attachment disorder. I'm terrified of rows with friends because I see relationships as fragile, easily destroyed by a petty quarrel, and the breaking of affectional bonds as unbearably painful. (Notice that my beliefs are internally inconsistant: if breaking affectional bonds is as painful as I fear, my friends are clearly not going to inflict that pain on themselves by dropping me over a petty quarrel. Whoops!)

Here is the general interest bit: rows within marriages, love affairs, and close friendships, are a well known phenomenon (is this the understatement of the month?). So I've spent 30 years noticing this and forgetting it without realising the implications, noticing and forgetting, noticing and forgetting, over and over, without ever holding it in my awareness for long enough to say "Hey! Wait a minute..."

Suggestion two is to keep a little black book of the stuff that keeps getting dropped on the floor. So it one was brought up a Christian one might notice when a daughter or fiancee unexpectly falls pregnant this never raised hopes of a second coming or a new relevation. After a while one realises that one never follows this thought anywhere, even though there is something odd about it. Into the black book it goes.

Later you can look through the book and start trying to worry out what is so slippery about the thought. Write down the stuff that doesn't make sense so that it has a chance against the much more easy to remember stuff that fits into your world view.

THREE: Fine distinctions of sarcasm. When one of one's favorite views is attacked by a sarcastic comment it sometimes irritates and it sometimes stings.

Sometimes the humour depends on an oversimplification. Perhaps the humour priviledges the ex post perspective over the ex ante perspecitive. This irritates because the attack is short and funny and the repost is long and dull, and yet ex post is not inherently better than ex ante, the argument is being decided by structural matters independent of the merits of the case.

Othertimes the humour lies in the fact that the sarcasm cuts through the bullshit and the defense mechanisms and pierces to the heart of the matter. This stings. The only defence is to remember all the worthless sarcasm that depends on distortion and irritates rather than stings and to pretend that this sting is also an irritation.

comment by jurisnaturalist · 2008-01-01T07:52:00.000Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I don’t know if any other Christians read this site, but I found the drama compelling enough to share it on mine, with this preamble: “Christians ought to fully recognize the absurdity of their claims. We ought not to expect any understanding or concession from unbelievers. The claims of our creed are completely outside the experience of natural man. Christiandom we are not. The Kingdom of God we are. We ought not to place any expectations on the world except that they will laugh at us, scorn us, and persecute us, just as they did Christ. There’s nothing worse than a crybaby, whining, bratty Christian.”

Your point was spot-on. Those Christians who want special concessions from the state are as opposed to the claims of Christ as they are to liberty. John Howard Yoder, Stanley Hauerwas, Bonhoeffer, and the folks over at Jesus Manifesto recognize the distinction, and make it the cornerstone of their position. Christianity calls for the adoption of a peculiar ethic which mandates full and exclusive responsibility for caring for the least of these to be accepted by its followers. It fully renounces manipulation of the political mechanism, and requires sacrificial altruism towards all others. It claims this altruism is made possible through an alteration of human nature.

Atheist libertarians ought to welcome Christians as the solution for caring for the poor. Instead of “to heck with the poor,” they can now say, “well the Christians say they want to care for the poor, so let ‘em have ‘em.”

comment by TobyBartels · 2010-12-28T01:55:12.691Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Atheist libertarians ought to welcome Christians as the solution for caring for the poor. Instead of "to heck with the poor," they can now say, "well the Christians say they want to care for the poor, so let 'em have 'em."

That's about what Ayn Rand did say. (Edit: Actually, it was Objectivist spokesperson Barbara Branden.)

I'm an atheist libertarian who does care for the poor, so I don't actually need you. (I welcome you all the same, of course!)

comment by Alexei_Turchin · 2008-01-29T12:36:00.000Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I think people would find it more apropriate if you tell about any your own bias that you have until e.g. 15 years old, and then debiased yourself, and tell people around you that they are wrong and that they believe in stupid thing.

comment by Kevin8 · 2008-03-02T10:48:00.000Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Great little scene - I wish I'd had the script during drama at school.

comment by TobyBartels · 2010-08-18T21:03:02.769Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

An excellent little story!

Two nitpicks: The rabbi should say ‘AWESOME!’, not ‘NEAT!’. (It has appropriate religous tones, while the modern connotations fit the spirt of your text.) Also, Betty should be Mary's cousin, not just her friend. (That's the traditional Catholic position, although Luke 1:36 is not clear.)

comment by Carinthium · 2010-11-23T07:20:47.045Z · score: -2 (6 votes) · LW · GW

1- To be fair, some... features might look different if Mary hadn't actually been penetrated. 2- Historically, I'm not sure if the concept of the white lie as a formal concept had been invented then. If it had been, it almost certainly wasn't called that. 3- Betty wasn't a Jewish name.

comment by orthonormal · 2010-12-26T23:43:56.743Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

3- Betty wasn't a Jewish name.

You missed the joke.

comment by wedrifid · 2010-12-27T05:23:22.102Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

1- To be fair, some... features might look different if Mary hadn't actually been penetrated.

That's a good point. If it was not Joseph who knocked her up you would expect he would ask for some evidence of that kind. Even though the test of virginity he had available is vulnerable to some false negatives it is the best he had.

comment by christopherj · 2013-12-06T23:05:05.452Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Though it is quite common for the hymen test for virginity to give false negatives, I've also heard that it could give false positives. Maybe Joseph did check! There was also a much more interesting test that Joseph could have done.

comment by [deleted] · 2011-11-19T20:11:55.116Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

If it had been, it almost certainly wasn't called that.

It's not like she was speaking English anyway, so if you're using a translation you could as well use an idiomatic one.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2010-12-26T23:44:11.981Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Well, I thought it was fairly funny for the most part, but it wasn't my personal toes getting stepped on.

One Eliezerish aspect which I don't think was mentioned in the comments is the serious possible effects of what seem like small lies.

The rabbi was one of the funniest bits, but he's also terrifying if you think about him seriously-- he's able to con the vast majority of people he talks to, and he takes serious risks with their lives.

I think the usual reaction to that sort of story is to think that the people who were conned were fools, but there are always going to be people who are more convincing than most, and people with above average gullibility-- it's worth it to have a society where the gullible aren't taken advantage of just as it's worth it to have a society where the physically weak aren't automatic victims.

comment by KND · 2011-08-08T03:40:23.135Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I wasnt aware that they had rabbis before Rome expelled the Jews. i thought that was a development designed to help cope with the Diaspora.