Making My Peace with Belief

post by OrphanWilde · 2015-12-03T20:36:05.673Z · LW · GW · Legacy · 42 comments

I grew up in an atheistic household.

Almost needless to say, I was relatively hostile towards religion for most of my early life.  A few things changed that.

First, the apology of a pastor.  A friend of mine was proselytizing at me, and apparently discussed it with his pastor; the pastor apologized to my parents, and explained to my friend he shouldn't be trying to convert people.  My friend apologized to me after considering the matter.  We stayed friends for a little while afterwards, although I left that school, and we lost contact.

I think that was around the time that I realized that religion is, in addition to being a belief system, a way of life, and not necessarily a bad one.

The next was actually South Park's Mormonism episode, which pointed out that a belief system could be desirable on the merits of the way of life it represented, even if the beliefs themselves are stupid.  This tied into Douglas Adam's comment on Feng Shui, that "...if you disregard for a moment the explanation that's actually offered for it, it may be there is something interesting going on" - which is to say, the explanation for the belief is not necessarily the -reason- for the belief, and that stupid beliefs may actually have something useful to offer - which then requires us to ask whether the beliefs are, in fact, stupid.

Which is to say, beliefs may be epistemically irrational while being instrumentally rational.

The next peace I made with belief actually came from quantum physics, and reading about how there were several disparate and apparently contradictory mathematical systems, which all predicted the same thing.  It later transpired that they could all be generalized into the same mathematical system, but I hadn't read that far before the isomorphic nature of truth occurred to me; you can have multiple contradictory interpretations of the same evidence that all predict the same thing.

Up to this point, however, I still regarded beliefs as irrational, at least on an epistemological basis.

The next peace came from experiences living in a house that would have convinced most people that ghosts are real, which I have previously written about here.  I think there are probably good explanations for every individual experience even if I don't know them, but am still somewhat flummoxed by the fact that almost all the bizarre experiences of my life all revolve around the same physical location.  I don't know if I would accept money to live in that house again, which I guess means that I wouldn't put money on the bet that there wasn't something fundamentally odd about the house itself - a quality of the house which I think the term "haunted" accurately conveys, even if its implications are incorrect.

If an AI in a first person shooter dies every time it walks into a green room, and experiences great disutility for death, how many times must it walk into a green room before it decides not to do that anymore?  I'm reasonably confident on a rational level that there was nothing inherently unnatural about that house, nothing beyond explanation, but I still won't "walk into the green room."

That was the point at which I concluded that beliefs can be -rational-.  Disregard for a moment the explanation that's actually offered for them, and just accept the notion that there may be something interesting going on underneath the surface.

If we were to hold scientific beliefs to the same standard we hold religious beliefs - holding the explanation responsible rather than the predictions - scientific beliefs really don't come off looking that good.  The sun isn't the center of the universe; some have called this theory "less wrong" than an earth-centric model of the universe, but that's because the -predictions- are better; the explanation itself is still completely, 100% wrong.

Likewise, if we hold religious beliefs to the same standard we hold scientific beliefs - holding the predictions responsible rather than the explanations - religious beliefs might just come off better than we'd expect.

42 comments

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comment by Lumifer · 2015-12-03T21:22:52.035Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

beliefs may be epistemically irrational while being instrumentally rational.

I predict pushback -- LW won't like that idea one little bit :-)

and just accept the notion that there may be something interesting going on underneath the surface.

That's not the definition of "rational", though.

You're basically saying that with "irrational" beliefs one should go meta -- look at them from the outside, consider actual consequences and effects, ponder why these beliefs exists... Yeah, sure. Going "Oh, you believe in , you must be so dumb" is dumb. And yes, "I don't know why this works, but this works" is a reasonable :-) position to take.

I'm still not sure, though, that by the prediction metric science will look as badly as you hint and religions will shine. Contemporary religions generally shy away from testable (during the lifetime) predictions and for good reasons, too. As to science, I think the distinction between hard and soft sciences is pretty necessary here. Hard sciences live and die by predictions. Soft sciences spin narratives -- just like your friendly pastor next door :-/

Replies from: ChristianKl, ScottL, OrphanWilde
comment by ChristianKl · 2015-12-03T22:12:59.084Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I predict pushback -- LW won't like that idea one little bit :-)

Given posts like Truth: It's not that great I wouldn't expect a strong pushback.

comment by ScottL · 2015-12-04T05:13:35.375Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I predict pushback -- LW won't like that idea one little bit :-)

That claim seems totally fine to me. Inaccurate maps can still be useful, sometimes even more useful than more accurate maps as they can be simpler to use and easier to create. I wrote about that here.

Incorrect maps can also sometimes be useful. Examples of this are adaptive biases like the sexual over perception bias in men. From a truth-maximization perspective young men who assume that all women want them are showing severe social-cognitive inaccuracies, judgment biases, and probably narcissistic personality disorder. However, from an evolutionary perspective, the same young men are behaving in a more optimal manner. One which has consistently maximized the reproductive success of their male ancestors. Another similar example is the bias for positive perception of partners.

comment by OrphanWilde · 2015-12-03T21:49:40.969Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I predict pushback -- LW won't like that idea one little bit :-)

I've had this particular post in my drafts for... oh... over a year, now? For pretty much that reason.

I'm still not sure, though, that by the prediction metric science will look as badly as you hint and religions will shine.

Which group has higher average happiness levels, religious or non-religious?

Replies from: Lumifer, iarwain1, Manfred
comment by Lumifer · 2015-12-03T22:17:53.300Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Which group has higher average happiness levels, religious or non-religious?

First, this is irrelevant to the question of who makes better predictions; and second, you might be able to show correlation but I have strong doubts you would be able to show causation.

Replies from: OrphanWilde
comment by OrphanWilde · 2015-12-04T13:59:21.019Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Predictions for what makes for a good life?

Replies from: Lumifer
comment by Lumifer · 2015-12-04T15:41:09.692Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think that religions do not predict anything, but help people deal with their lot in life -- whatever it might be.

Replies from: OrphanWilde
comment by OrphanWilde · 2015-12-04T15:46:03.453Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Religions predict a lot of things. Every commandment in the Bible is a prediction, a hypothesis. Every parable, likewise. Do this, not that; the prediction is that "this" is better than "that". If, on the whole, people who are strongly religious are more happy, those predictions hold true.

Replies from: Lumifer
comment by Lumifer · 2015-12-04T16:11:17.178Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Do this, not that; the prediction is that "this" is better than "that".

Maybe, but smushing together "making predictions" and "having a particular vision of the world" gets dangerously close to empty philosophising. Of course every worldview implies predictions, but "Jesus Loves You" isn't an exercise in forecasting.

Besides, consider evolution. "Do not kill" works because societies without this commandment disintegrate pretty rapidly and do not make it. That doesn't make it a prediction, just -- like in biology -- a change that's good enough to survive.

Replies from: OrphanWilde
comment by OrphanWilde · 2015-12-04T16:23:18.324Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Maybe, but smushing together "making predictions" and "having a particular vision of the world" gets dangerously close to empty philosophising.

Every hypothesis is a "particular vision of the world", a particular idea about how the world works. Its usefulness is how well this idea translates to prediction.

Besides, consider evolution. "Do not kill" works because societies without this commandment disintegrate pretty rapidly and do not make it. That doesn't make it a prediction, just -- like in biology -- a change that's good enough to survive.

Science is just as much an evolutionary process? I'm not sure what the criticism here is.

comment by iarwain1 · 2015-12-03T22:22:01.064Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

See this article (full article available from sidebar), which argues that although conventional wisdom gives religion the advantage here, the reality may not be so clear-cut.

Replies from: OrphanWilde
comment by OrphanWilde · 2015-12-04T14:01:01.275Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm an atheist. I imagine you are too.

So, did you find that article because you, or whoever linked it to you, discovered it - or because you, or they, went looking for something which proved what you or they wanted to believe?

ETA: I've long held that atheists should form social support groups, and take the other best-of aspects of religion. The article is arguing that the things which make religion beneficial have nothing to do with religion. This is untrue; religion is inherently a social activity. It is, by its nature, pro-social. If we're only grudgingly going to admit religion does anything right, that impairs our ability to figure out what it does right, and take those things for ourselves.

comment by Manfred · 2015-12-03T21:59:22.737Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm still not sure, though, that by the prediction metric science will look as badly as you hint and religions will shine.

Which group has higher average happiness levels, religious or non-religious?

This is not the same question. Happiness is not a perfect indicator of good predictions, and people are not composed only of their ideology. This reframing gets farther away from the actual issue.

Replies from: OrphanWilde
comment by OrphanWilde · 2015-12-04T13:59:54.351Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Happiness is the indicator for whether or not a thing works for people.

Replies from: gjm, mwengler
comment by gjm · 2015-12-04T15:28:01.339Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

An indicator. If I can stick an electrode in your brain and keep you blissfully happy for the rest of your life, and hook you up to an intravenous drip to provide you with enough nutrients to keep you alive (but perfectly useless to everyone else, and perfectly incapable of achieving any of the goals you might have had before you were hooked up) for, say, 25 years -- would you want it done?

I would not, because I care about things other than happiness. Happiness is my brain's way of indicating that some kinds of goals are being met, and it's a useful signal of those things, but it's no more perfectly reliable than any number of other internal behaviour-guiding signals in my brain. If I trusted them all completely, I would make a lot of poor decisions about what to eat and when, whom to have sex with and when, when to give up on something because it's too hard, etc., etc., etc.

Replies from: OrphanWilde
comment by OrphanWilde · 2015-12-04T15:44:04.928Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

An indicator. If I can stick an electrode in your brain and keep you blissfully happy for the rest of your life, and hook you up to an intravenous drip to provide you with enough nutrients to keep you alive (but perfectly useless to everyone else, and perfectly incapable of achieving any of the goals you might have had before you were hooked up) for, say, 25 years -- would you want it done?

Ah, wireheading. No. For reasons that I'll get into below.

I would not, because I care about things other than happiness. Happiness is my brain's way of indicating that some kinds of goals are being met, and it's a useful signal of those things, but it's no more perfectly reliable than any number of other internal behaviour-guiding signals in my brain. If I trusted them all completely, I would make a lot of poor decisions about what to eat and when, whom to have sex with and when, when to give up on something because it's too hard, etc., etc., etc.

What would make those decisions poor, however? Is it because they would reduce your long-term happiness?

You're engaging in a bit of mind-body duality here; your brain isn't a separate thing that imposes stuff on your mind, your brain is your mind. Your brain's happiness is your happiness; and likewise, the reverse. First, it's important to note that pleasure isn't happiness; this is something I assume you're consciously aware of, but you appear to conflate the two somewhat in terms of what kinds of decisions you use as examples.

Why wouldn't I wirehead? Because the idea horrifies me. As soon as the electrodes go in, I'm quite certain I'd prefer that state. I wouldn't even agree to five seconds of it, however, because I expect after five seconds, I'd readily agree to twenty five years; a few seconds of wireheading is equivalent to twenty five years, because I expect it would erode any desire not to do it. And the extreme unhappiness I feel with relation to the idea of wireheading tells me that it isn't right for me, and, I expect, it isn't right for people in general.

I call happiness the indicator; if you rewire my turn signal indicators in my dashboard, which normally indicate whether or not my turn signals are flashing, so that they are always on, are my turn signals always on? Or have you merely destroyed a useful signal?

Replies from: gjm
comment by gjm · 2015-12-04T17:11:48.392Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

What would make those decisions poor, however? Is it because they would reduce your long-term happiness?

No. (Not entirely, anyway; happiness is one of my goals.)

You're engaging in a bit of mind-body duality here

I really don't think I am. I did not claim (and I do not believe) that those things are being signalled by/in my brain to something outside my brain. If I say "the contents of address 0x1453C are the chess program's estimate of how much danger the white king is in", I'm not claiming it's using the contents of that address to signal to something other than itself. Similarly with happiness in the brain. The "I" of which I speak is, of course, implemented on and in the hardware of my brain. And yes, my brain's happiness is my happiness; I am not claiming "I should pay less attention to my brain's happiness in order to maximize my happiness" but "I should pay less attention to my brain's happiness in order to make the world more the way I want it to be".

pleasure isn't happiness [...] you appear to conflate the two somewhat in terms of what kinds of decisions you use as examples.

My apologies; I think I must have been insufficiently clear. Those weren't meant to be examples of bad decisions I would make by attending too much to happiness, but of bad decisions I would make by attending too much to similar brain-signals. Hunger, lust, fear, and so on.

I think your analogy with a car's turn signals is a good one, but it seems to me to make my point for me. If you are in your car, what you care about isn't which way the indicators are flashing but what roads you drive down. If you are on the road and looking at another car, what you care about isn't which way the indicators are flashing but whether and which way it's actually going to turn. Happiness is, indeed, like the turn signals: it's a pretty reliable but imperfect indicator. We are generally happier when the world is the way we want it to be, but the circuitry that assesses the match between the world and our purposes is imperfect and subvertible, and sometimes we can do better than maximizing our happiness. Wireheading is a useful example because it poses as starkly as possible the question: if happiness and actually getting the world the way you want it are forcibly separated, which one is it you actually care about? And, as I think we are agreed, almost everyone chooses the latter and wants other people to do the same.

So, how does all this apply to the discussion a few comments upthread? The question was whether religious belief is effective (specifically in terms of practical predictions about the world, but I think a strawmanned version of your argument would be less specific on that point) and you suggested that "are religious people happier or unhappier than non-religious people?" is an equivalent question, or maybe (you weren't explicit) just a very good proxy for it.

I think it's not that great a proxy, for reasons comparable to those involving wireheading: there are mechanisms by which religious belief or unbelief could affect a person's happiness that are basically unconnected with whether the world is the way they want it to be. You might be happy or unhappy about your expected fate in the afterlife, even if there is in fact no afterlife. You might be happy or unhappy because of "religious experiences" that you interpret as coming from the gods or ancestral spirits or whatever, even if in fact their origin is inside your head. You might also be happy or unhappy about how well God's purposes are being fulfilled in the world, which is unsatisfactory in a different way, kinda parallel to the way that if you were given 5 seconds' wireheading you might then want it to continue for 25 years: the furtherance of God's purposes would indeed be one of your goals, but it might be a bad goal if you have it only because of factually incorrect beliefs about God.

Replies from: OrphanWilde, entirelyuseless
comment by OrphanWilde · 2015-12-04T18:14:29.596Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

What is happiness, to you?

Replies from: gjm
comment by gjm · 2015-12-04T22:33:36.366Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm not sure how to answer that question. An affective state that one tends to want more of, but that doesn't distinguish it from some other such states. The thing that is (or at least feels like it is) common between, e.g., the following experiences:

  • Having nearly finished eating a very tasty and large, but not too large, meal.
  • Confidently anticipating a promotion at work.
  • Successfully finding a solution to a difficult mathematical problem.
  • Playing with one's children.
  • Sitting companionably with friends.
  • Having just been unexpectedly kissed by someone one has long admired and desired.
  • Being on an exhilarating but not actually frightening or nauseating roller coaster.
  • Religious conversion (if ecstatic) or deconversion (if a relief).
  • Learning that one does not after all have a life-threatening medical condition.

(I could prolong the list considerably, but I don't think it would add much. The items in the list are all "self-regarding" in some sense, but for most people plenty of "other-regarding" things could go in such a list too.) What is (or feels like it is) common between pleasure, satisfaction, and joy. (But those terms are doubtless in as much need of definition as "happiness".) One's instinctual sense of the extent to which things are as one wishes.

All of those (admittedly vague) descriptions appear to me to be pointing to a single (admittedly vague) thing, and that is what I call happiness. Does that help?

comment by entirelyuseless · 2015-12-04T17:38:42.734Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I mostly agree with this, but I think you might have an idea of "getting the world the way you want it" which is more utilitarian than what most people actually want. I think we can summarize most of what most people mostly want by "living a good and happy life together with other people."

Happy is there because people are in fact interested in happiness, but not only happiness. "Good" is there because most people are moral realists or some equivalent, and they would not want to live a happy life if in fact it was an evil and harmful one. "Together with other people" is there perhaps just because given human nature, it is very difficult to understand a life as being actually good or happy without it.

There are certainly other things that people care about, but I think that contains most of it. And unless you put a very high weight on believing the truth, that is all consistent with having false religious beliefs, and in fact for many people it is easier with religious beliefs.

Replies from: gjm
comment by gjm · 2015-12-04T23:19:36.861Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I wasn't claiming that happiness is or should be incompatible with religious belief or observance. Only that "religious people are happier" wouldn't be very strong evidence that religion is beneficial by any other metric, and "religious people are unhappier" wouldn't be very strong evidence that it's harmful by any other metric.

comment by mwengler · 2015-12-04T16:25:54.647Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Happiness is the indicator for whether or not a thing works for people.

I don't think so.

Prevalence is the primary indicator of whether or not a thing works for people. Does a civilization which promotes patriotism in the local population make the people happier by doing this? I doubt it. But they probably do make their civilization more robust, more fit in a survival sense by doing so.

Replies from: OrphanWilde
comment by OrphanWilde · 2015-12-04T16:37:45.939Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

What works for persons, if you prefer. Patriotism helps civilization; does it help a person?

comment by Pentashagon · 2015-12-05T04:22:48.098Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Religion solves some coordination problems very well. Witness religions outlasting numerous political and philosophical movements, often through coordinated effort. Some wrong beliefs assuage bad emotions and thoughts, allowing humans to internally deal with the world beyond the reach of god. Some of the same wrong beliefs also hurt and kill a shitload of people, directly and indirectly.

My personal belief is that religions were probably necessary for humanity to rise from agricultural to technological societies, and tentatively necessary to maintain technological societies until FAI, especially in a long-takeoff scenario. We have limited evidence that religion-free or wrong-belief-free societies can flourish. Most first-world nations are officially and practically agnostic but have sizable populations of religious people. The nations which are actively anti-religious generally have their own strong dogmatic anti-scientific beliefs that the leaders are trying to push, and they still can't stomp out all religions.

Basically, until doctors can defeat virtually all illness and death and leaders can effectively coordinate global humane outcomes without religions I think that religions serve as a sanity line above destructive hedonism or despair.

Replies from: ChristianKl, Evan_Gaensbauer
comment by ChristianKl · 2015-12-06T15:40:44.248Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

leaders can effectively coordinate global humane outcomes without religions

Coordinating global outcomes with religion these days mean war between religion. I think even today more secular ways of thinking about different countries interacting with each other leads to better outcomes.

comment by Evan_Gaensbauer · 2015-12-06T06:35:07.429Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

What about humans or religions make religions necessary for humanity to rise from agricultural to technological societies? While it's not 'high-tech', and came long before the scientific revolution, what makes an agricultural society not also a technological one, insofar as agriculture might be considered closer to a technological society than to one which is purely run by hunter-gatherers?

By "technological society", do you mean "industrial society"? If not, what's the line between a technological society and an agricultural one in your mind? How have you determined the agricultural society is closer to one of hunter-gatherers than a technological one? Do you have a reason for expecting religion is necessary to raise humans from agriculture to more technological societies, but not from a state of tribal hunter-gatherers to agricultural city-states?

comment by passive_fist · 2015-12-03T20:58:07.959Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Aside from the confirmation bias, if you believe a room to be 'haunted', it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, leading to 'extra-cautious' behavior that actually may actually increase the chance that another bad thing will happen.

Anyway, what you're describing are just hypotheses. One explanation could be that the room is haunted by a supernatural presence. Another could simply be random statistical chance. Science isn't inherently against belief and anyone who thinks this is mistaken. Science is just a way of sifting through beliefs. You can test the hypothesis that the room is haunted by, say, gathering people who have no prior information about the room, getting them to go into the room, and recording how often bad things happen, compared to a control room. You'd most likely find no statistically significant difference. But the thing is, we often don't have the time or resources to carry out detailed experiments confirming or rejecting all our beliefs. So we believe, as a short-cut to actual knowledge. If this is what you are trying to say here, I fully agree.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-12-05T17:36:16.878Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yeah, for most people it is instrumentally rational to be religious. When I deconverted from Christianity, I was shocked by how many of my friends eventually reverted to some form of Pascal's wager, which was what kept me from confronting my doubts as long as I did. With your average cherry-picked Christianity, you don't lose much, and you gain a ton. It's nice believing an all-powerful all-loving God who is much smarter than we are has everything in control even when we don't understand, it's nice believing you're going to heaven, it's nice socializing with your friends at Bible study, yada yada yada.

So I couldn't help but think of religious belief when I read meditations on moloch. For the average individual, it's great to be religious. Yet the world as a whole would probably be better off if no one were, for obvious reasons.

I saw something circulating facebook about atheists being more altruistic than Christians. I don't know how legit the study was, but I wouldn't be surprised if atheists were less likely to default in other prisoner's dilemmas as well. But even so I wouldn't fault the Christians and wouldn't prefer they change their ways. I think there's a lot of truth to Dostoyevsky's saying something to the effect of "the more I love mankind as a whole, the less I love man in particular" and that it goes both ways. You can't perfectly love individuals and perfectly love humanity at the same time.

The Christians I know love "man in particular" an incredible, incredible lot. Like my mom, who spends probably ten hours a week visiting and helping an elderly lady whose kids live in another state and don't visit often. And who will drop everything to take drive a grumpy and entitled-acting disabled lady to get shampoo or any such random errand. I would never do these things. Or if I did, I would feel so good about myself afterward that it would eliminate the selflessness of the act. But love and connection like this on an individual level is part of what makes us human and is important too, I think. It's good for the world to have some people of each type.

Hah, I guess I too have been making my peace with belief lately.

comment by entirelyuseless · 2015-12-04T17:02:53.197Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I agreed with your basic point in the haunted house article, while disagreeing with your theoretical analysis of it. Aumann was not wrong; obviously his conclusions follow from his premises. But it is also obvious that his premises do not apply perfectly to real people. Consequently, in the sense that people can be reasonable (which means not perfectly reasonable) and in which they can have reasonable beliefs (which means not perfectly reasonable beliefs) reasonable people can have reasonable beliefs which are in opposition to one another.

So I do not assume that someone else's belief is unreasonable as soon as he disagrees with me. I have at least one belief which would generally be considered to be a conspiracy theory. There is no reason for me to say what that belief is, because nearly all the readers of this comment would assume that I am wrong. And they would be perfectly reasonable in making that assumption, because judging from an outside view the belief would be very likely to be wrong. I do not think my belief is unreasonable, given my inside view, nor do I think the readers would unreasonable to assume that I am wrong, given their outside view.

Given someone that I consider overall reasonable, e.g. gjm, I am pretty sure that he and I could come to agreement regarding the truth of that belief, if we gave it sufficient time and discussion. But it almost certainly would not be worth the time and discussion, for either of us. Consequently there will necessarily be a persistent disagreement without that implying that anyone is unreasonable in the human sense of the term.

I think the same thing applies to religious / non-religious beliefs, at least in a general way, although I think that religious people have an extremely hard time distinguishing their motivations from their arguments (i.e. benefits from believing vs. evidence that those beliefs are true.) I know someone who seems to believe something like "My estimate based on my current evidence and analysis is that there is a 30% chance that my religion is true. Since there is a 70% chance it is false, it is probable that if I gave it sufficient thought and considered enough of the evidence, there is approximately a 70% chance that I could arrive at an estimate of a 99% chance it is false. But since I get instrumental benefits from believing, I do not intend to look at that evidence. So I will leave my estimate at 30%, which I am fairly comfortable with."

Personally I would never be comfortable with such a situation; I want to know what is actually true. But people care about different things, and I don't consider someone like that to be fundamentally unreasonable.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-12-04T11:26:15.543Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Maybe 'faith' would be a more fitting word?

Replies from: OrphanWilde
comment by OrphanWilde · 2015-12-04T14:26:35.314Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Faith isn't quite right; I can recognize that a belief is useful without believing that it is true.

Replies from: gjm
comment by gjm · 2015-12-04T15:08:22.746Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Does "faith" imply any more endorsement than "belief" does? To me, I think it actually carries less implication of actually-believing-in.

Replies from: OrphanWilde
comment by OrphanWilde · 2015-12-04T15:19:53.826Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Atheists frequently make the same mistake religious people do, in assuming those that don't share their beliefs are merely -pretending- not to share their beliefs, and secretly, in their heart, believe as they do.

Religious people may use the fact that atheists use the word "God" as proof that they secretly believe, because the word connects to a concept in their own mind that it doesn't connect to in an atheist's. Saying "God doesn't exist" is a denial of the self-evident to the religious person, in the same way "I don't exist" is a denial of the self-evident to the atheist.

Atheists think that when religious people avoid putting their faith to the test, they're afraid it will fail. They're unaware that faith -demands- that tests of faith fail, because that's how faith is proven. They expect God to prove himself to man, whereas the religious expect man to prove himself to God.

Replies from: gjm
comment by gjm · 2015-12-04T16:28:54.161Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm not sure what relevance any of that has to the question I asked, unless you're suggesting that I am one of those mistaken atheists who assume religious people are merely pretending. As it happens, I'm not. Neither "belief" nor "faith" is Secret Religious People's Code for "pretending to believe". Sometimes (quite rarely, I think) people do just pretend to believe; sometimes (quite often, I think) they simply and straightforwardly believe with perfect sincerity and great confidence; sometimes (most often, I think) something in between, usually still comfortably in the region where I'll happily agree that the belief is genuine. It seems to me that on average cases where the word "faith" is used are, if anything, just slightly further towards the "pretending" end of that scale than cases where the word "belief" is used. That's all.

Replies from: OrphanWilde
comment by OrphanWilde · 2015-12-04T16:36:43.619Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"I'm not sure what relevance any of that has to the question I asked, unless you're suggesting that I am one of those mistaken atheists who assume religious people are merely pretending."

"It seems to me that on average cases where the word "faith" is used are, if anything, just slightly further towards the "pretending" end of that scale than cases where the word "belief" is used."

Look to one. Look to the other. Look to my third paragraph again. These three ideas interact in a very important way, which is that I don't think you know what the word "faith" means to religious people. It attaches to a different concept in your brain than in theirs.

ETA: Which is to say, I think, if you were religious, looking at the exact same set of uses of the word "faith", you wouldn't feel that more were pretending than not.

Replies from: gjm
comment by gjm · 2015-12-04T17:39:49.894Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

you wouldn't feel that more were pretending than not.

I don't feel that more are pretending than not. You are misunderstanding what I write, in ways that contradict my explicit statements, and at this point I'm finding it difficult to escape the conclusion that for some reason you are so anxious to see me making the mistake you wrongly think I am making that it matters little what I actually say. And, while totally misunderstanding what I write, you are being patronizing at me about it. This is slightly annoying, and I hope you will not be too badly annoyed because I am now going to be patronizing at you in turn; I have at least the excuse of actually being right.

Here is a scale drawn in beautiful ASCII. I have marked on it the left and right endpoints L and R, and two other points on the scale A and B.

L--------------------------------A-B----R

Suppose someone says: It seems to me that on this scale point A is, if anything, just slightly further towards the "left" end of that scale than point B.

I claim that (1) they are correct, (2) both A and B are in fact nearer R than L, and (3) there is no inconsistency between 1 and 2.

In case I have not yet made it sufficiently explicit:

  • This is very roughly how I see "faith" and "belief" in their religious context.
  • Both correspond to a fairly wide range of actual mental states;
    • the ranges overlap a lot;
    • they extend all the way from "outright disbelief plus deliberate lying" to "absolutely sincere and absolutely confident belief",
    • they are both generally much nearer the latter than the former.
  • Both words are generally used to describe situations that are comfortably within the range where I will happily agree that the belief is genuine.
  • If you replace each of those fuzzy probability-distribution-y things with a single representative point:
    • Those points will both be comfortably nearer "very confident belief" than "outright disbelief".
    • The point corresponding to "faith", while comfortably nearer "very confident belief" than "outright disbelief", will be nearer to "disbelief" than the point corresponding to "belief".

None of that is any different from what I said before, and in particular the bits that explicitly contradict the view you are trying to foist on me are all there in the grandparent of this comment too. But perhaps I have now made it clear enough not to be misunderstood?

I don't think you know what the word "faith" means to religious people.

Until age 36 I was actively religious myself (Christian, as it happens). My wife and plenty of my friends still are. I have run Bible studies and (to my shame) helped to lead Christian children's holidays. I have (this proves nothing but may be some kind of evidence) more theology books still on my bookshelves than, I would guess, at least 95% of actively religious university graduates (I include the last two words because otherwise the comparison would be kinda unfair). I am, furthermore, not actually an idiot. As a consequence, I have a pretty good idea of how religious people use the words "faith" and "belief". (Part of the answer: Different religious people, on different occasions, use them quite differently.)

You can get a (very incomplete but perhaps still informative) idea of some of what I think religious people sometimes mean by "faith" from this thing that I wrote around the time I stopped being a Christian. Or you could read C S Lewis's essay "On obstinacy in belief" which touches on these matters, not because I agree with everything he says (that would imply still belonging to his religion, which I don't) but because it's a pretty good exposition of some things religious people say about faith and belief, and I'm very familiar with it, and therefore what it says is part of my understanding of how religious people use those words.

In an I-hope-not-too-futile attempt to forestall a possible objection: No, I am not saying that, e.g., what C S Lewis is describing is a matter of pretending to believe things one really doesn't, and if you think I should be then you need to read what I wrote again until you stop thinking it, or else ask me for further clarification.

Replies from: OrphanWilde
comment by OrphanWilde · 2015-12-04T18:42:32.825Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I have at least the excuse of actually being right.

I see you; do you see me?

None of that is any different from what I said before, and in particular the bits that explicitly contradict the view you are trying to foist on me are all there in the grandparent of this comment too. But perhaps I have now made it clear enough not to be misunderstood?

I think you're wrong, and I think the reasons you are wrong are subtle. You think I'm wrong, and you appear to think the reasons I am wrong are obvious. Assume, for a moment, that I, also, am not an idiot.

You can get a (very incomplete but perhaps still informative) idea of some of what I think religious people sometimes mean by "faith" from this thing that I wrote around the time I stopped being a Christian.

I'd say the fact that you stopped being a Christian might suggest you have a different relationship to faith than those who do not. You expect "God to prove himself to man" - faith is about a belief in God, and if there's insufficient evidence, your faith is misplaced. To a religious person, faith is about them proving themselves to God; evidence or non-evidence of God doesn't actually enter into it.

Your comment about having faith in people is apt, but inverted; faith isn't expecting God to live up to God's promises, however, it's about them living up to what God expects them to live up to. Faith isn't trusting God, it's living up to God's trust in them.

Which makes more sense when you go back to the root of the word - allegiance, fidelity, loyalty. Its misuse as a referent to belief is because belief is the -first- of the loyalties (debts?) owed to God. As a virtue, it is more than belief, however.

As a word to stand in for belief - it stands in for belief on the basis of loyalty, rather than evidence. As a word to mean belief, it is inherently flawed, because that's not what it is.

Replies from: gjm
comment by gjm · 2015-12-04T22:05:26.632Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You think I'm wrong, and you appear to think the reasons I am wrong are obvious.

Well, you see, two comments ago you were telling me I was wrong for obvious reasons. You told me that I don't understand and if I understood I wouldn't think X, when in fact I do not think X.

I will not presume to guess how subtle the reasons are for which you are wrong. But you assuredly told me, with every sign of great confidence, that I think something I don't in fact think. You are now doubling down (in that you continue to insist that I am wrong) while backing off (by now saying you think I'm subtly wrong, where what you were accusing me of before was in no way subtle). So I think you may if you please claim either intellectual or moral high ground here -- but not both.

Assume, for a moment, that I, also, am not an idiot.

I do, I assure you.

the fact that you stopped being a Christian might suggest you have a different relationship to faith than those who do not.

No shit, Sherlock. On the other hand, (1) it's not so clear that it means I had a different relationship to faith from that of other Christians, (2) the fact that I lived as a Christian among Christians for decades and remain married to one and friends with plenty more means that I'm not exactly starved of opportunities to discover or remind myself how they think, and (3) you are still writing as if all religious people think and feel the same way about these things, which is demonstrably false.

To a religious person, faith is about them proving themselves to God; evidence or non-evidence of God doesn't actually enter into it. [...] Faith isn't trusting God, it's living up to God's trust in them.

The New Testament's use of phrases like "faith of X" is notoriously ambiguous, and indeed "faith" can mean "faithfulness" in the sense of trustworthiness rather than anything to do with belief. (And, I think more often, "trusting a person" rather than anything to do with factual belief.) However, I think you are simply factually wrong if you are claiming that most use of the word "faith" by religious people in general, or Christians in particular, has that meaning; and wronger than wrong if you are claiming that "faith" can't reasonably be used to denote something closely akin to belief, which I think is what would need to be true to invalidate the suggestion that you use the word "faith" rather than "belief" to describe the particular sort of thing you feel more positive about these days than you used to.

(I remark that earlier in the thread you were clearly happy to use the word "faith" to describe a particular kind of belief or something very closely akin thereto; taking "faith" to mean anything like "trustworthiness" makes total nonsense of the comment I just linked to.)

Now, of course you may quite reasonably feel that my opinion about how Christians use the word "faith" is of no value since I am not a Christian. So let me pull a few books off my shelves and see what they say about it. (No cherry-picking; I just took the first books I found that looked like they might have something to say on the point.)

  • A concise dictionary of theology by O'Collins and Farruga. (Roman Catholic; the authors are Jesuits.) Entry headed "Faith": "The objective, revealed truth believed in (fides quae) or the subjective personal commitment to God (fides qua)." (There's more but none of it involves the idea of faith as trustworthiness.)
  • The Christian theology reader by McGrath. (Anglican, I think with evangelical leanings.) Three index entries under "faith, nature of".
    • John Calvin. "Now we shall have a right definition of faith if we say that it is a steady and certain knowledge of the divine benevolence towards us, which is founded upon the truth of the gracious promise of God in Christ, and is both revealed to our minds and sealed in our hearts by the Holy Spirit." (There's more, but it's all about belief-that founded in trust-in and experience-of.)
    • Martin Luther. "In the twelfth place, faith does not merely mean that the soul realizes that the divine word is full of all grace, free and holy; it also unites the soul with Christ, as a bride is united with her bridegroom." (There's more, expanding on that theme of unitedness. Luther's writing here about the effects of faith rather than its definition.)
    • John Calvin again. "We make the foundation of faith the gracious promise, because faith properly consists of this. [Faith] is certain that God is true in everything ..." (Again, there's plenty more; Calvin wants to define "faith" to be something more than mere belief (cf. that famous bit about demons in the letter of James) but it's clear that it's a particular sort of belief, under particular circumstances, that he calls faith.)
  • A new catechism: Catholic faith for adults by various RC institutions in the Netherlands. (Roman Catholic, with liberal leanings.) This uses "faith" to mean many different things in the space of a few pages, and it's not always clear what's intended to define and what merely to describe. Here are some excerpts from the section headed "Faith" about half way through. "Faith is the gift of the Spirit which enables us to give ourselves entirely to him who is greater than we, and to accept his message. [...] Faith is a leap, but not an irresponsible one. It is justified by the leap itself. [...] Faith means partaking in God's life. [...] Faith is something which we have in common. We believe together. -- We also believe for others. This is the only answer when we ask ourselves why we believe and others do not. [...] Faith means to say Yes to God's revelation. [...] Is faith surer than science? It has a certainty of a different sort. It may be affirmed that the assent of faith is attached to the most profound of our faculties." Etc., etc., etc. Reading the whole thing (which includes e.g. a lengthy section on the relationship between faith and doubt) I think they're taking something-like-belief as the primary meaning and saying that it's a consequence of God's grace and has all sorts of other things as consequences.

That'll do for now. The point is just this: These books -- written by Christians, mostly for Christians -- are utterly irreconcilable with the claim that "faith" in the Christian context mostly means something like trustworthiness. They mostly take it to mean a kind of belief or a kind of trust or both. Of course they also claim that it's a belief-and/or-trust with a divine origin and all sorts of marvellous consequences, and that it should have consequences for how one lives; but they do not appear to agree at all with your suggestion that it's a misuse to use "faith" to denote a kind of belief.

(They do, to be sure, make it clear that for them "faith" is not simply a synonym for "belief", but I never said or suggested or thought that it is. I mention this merely because some of what you've written seems to suggest that you think I do think that.)

Replies from: gjm
comment by gjm · 2015-12-04T23:30:05.219Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I should maybe add that I've focused on Christianity here because (1) that's the religion I know best, (2) I'm pretty sure it's the religion you know best, and (3) it's one of the not-actually-so-many for which notions of "belief" and "faith" are actually a big deal.

comment by Elo · 2015-12-03T21:53:10.335Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

request subheadings to help with flow... Maybe it just works better for my processing if there are subheadings... I don't want to be the guy who makes formatting requests often... but it would be nice.

Replies from: OrphanWilde
comment by OrphanWilde · 2015-12-03T21:56:06.833Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I should really restructure it entirely, but for the moment, I'm judging reactions to see whether it will be worth restructuring.

Replies from: Elo
comment by Elo · 2015-12-03T22:26:47.540Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

worth it!