Wanted: Rationalist Pushback (link)

post by aronwall · 2012-12-17T05:51:08.987Z · score: 0 (15 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 31 comments

Recently I started a new blog, named "Undivided Looking: comments on physics and theology".  You can find it here:

http://www.wall.org/~aron/blog/

My main goals are to:

(My day job is researching quantum gravity at UC Santa Barbara, so I actually know what I'm talking about when it comes to the science.)

I'm posting this to Less Wrong in order to solicit comments from intelligent and civil members of the rationalist community.  I'm a Christian, but I want to avoid groupthink in the comments section, since I believe ideas should be developed and tested around people with multiple viewpoints.  So if anyone is willing to come and provide some friendly pushback from a rationalist perspective, that would be much appreciated.

Since the Less Wrong community is particularly interested in discussing epistemic norms, I'd be especially happy to get feedback on this series of posts:

Pillars of Science: Summary and Questions

in which I identify 6 different features of scientific inquiry which help account for its phenomenal success.  (Religion is only mentioned tangentially in this particular series, so even if you aren't interested in rehashing religious debates, you could still make a valuable contribution there.)

Thanks!

31 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by ChristianKl · 2012-12-21T20:14:49.662Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I made a prediction on predictionbook:

Aronwall will publically state that he drops his belief in Christianity after discussing his belief on his blog with other rationalists before the end of 2013.

comment by gjm · 2014-01-02T19:44:12.843Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

And lo, the prediction turned out false. (As, I should add for the avoidance of doubt, ChristianKI expected: the probability attached to that prediction was only 30%.)

comment by Dentin · 2012-12-18T00:27:10.167Z · score: 3 (9 votes) · LW · GW

While the physics posts are probably valuable, the remainder consists of yet another god/religion/belief/physics blog that tries to privilege an idea with no evidence (christianity) over other ideas with no evidence (flying spaghetti monster.)

To the author: I'm sure that you think your blog could be important or useful, and I'm sure that these are big, important questions for you. However, they're not, as such, open questions: they are already resolved.

The plain fact of the matter is that an uncaring, nihilistic universe built on simple laws is a better forward predictor than christianity, by a ridiculously large, many orders of magnitude margin. No amount of blogging or rationalizing is going to change that, and IMHO blogs like this do more of a disservice to global rationality than a service.

Downvoting. Reason: apologist, effort better spent elsewhere, do not wish to promote.

comment by atorm · 2012-12-18T05:32:09.172Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I disagree with you, but I upvoted because I want to promote polite criticism of ideas and I liked that you explained your downvote.

comment by Dentin · 2012-12-18T07:00:42.146Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Thank you.

Out of curiosity, which aspect of my post did you disagree with?

comment by atorm · 2012-12-22T03:27:10.998Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I think that putting a sharp divide between theism and rationality will just alienate intelligent theists. I think we need MORE people talking intelligently about religion, not fewer.

comment by shminux · 2012-12-17T20:37:19.812Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

I'm a Christian

In your day job, that would be like saying "I'm a String Theorist" and automatically look for arguments against, say, LQG, because LQG is not from your camp.

Kinda pointless to argue with someone whose bottom line is prewritten... But, to give you the benefit of a doubt, maybe you can coherently answer why you are Christian and not, say, Sikh, and why you want to mix Science and Religion, instead of compartmentalizing them (Mon-Fri: quantum gravity, Sun: church).

comment by aronwall · 2012-12-18T03:43:29.425Z · score: 4 (8 votes) · LW · GW

On the contrary, I want to take seriously all the reasonable arguments on both sides. The fact that I have an opinion about where the evidence as a whole leads does not prima facie make me impossible to argue with. Do you think it's pointless to argue with anyone who has a strong opinion about anything? Or do you think religion is a special case?

As for why I think Christianity is better than other religions, it's mainly because I believe that the Christian miracle claims are supported by better historical evidence than the miracle claims of other religions. Obviously in order to demonstrate this one would have to get into the nitty-gritty historical data, which I don't want to do here. But surely you can at least imagine a hypothetical set of historical data for which I'd be right. I think you have to actually think about each religion on a case-by-case basis, and not assume in advance they are all the same.

Why not just compartmentalize Science and Religion? Because I actually believe them both, as facts about the real world, so of course they can't live in totally watertight compartments. There may be situations in which I'm thinking more about one than the other, but that doesn't change the fact that there's only one world and that everything has to fit consistently together. What would you do if someone asked you: Why not just compartmentalize physics and economics? I'm having a hard time making sense of this question.

In other words, I agree with rationalism in its claim that we ought to apply Reason responsibly to everything, even Religon. I just disagree about what follows when you do that...

comment by almkglor · 2012-12-18T04:46:34.997Z · score: 9 (9 votes) · LW · GW

The fact that I have an opinion about where the evidence as a whole leads does not prima facie make me impossible to argue with.

So you're saying that if the evidence goes against you, you are going to stop being a Christian and self-identify as atheist (note that we do not capitalize that word)?

comment by aronwall · 2012-12-18T21:13:14.965Z · score: 10 (10 votes) · LW · GW

yes

comment by ChristianKl · 2012-12-21T20:08:17.769Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Does that mean that you are purely focused on having a true belief system and don't want to believe in God because believing in God makes you happy or provides other benefits?

comment by almkglor · 2012-12-21T03:32:01.744Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

On 18 December 2012 09:13:14PM, user "aronwall" replied "yes" to the question "So you're saying that if the evidence goes against you, you are going to stop being a Christian and self-identify as atheist (note that we do not capitalize that word)?". This comment is to ensure that user "aronwall" shall not be able to disavow this reply; please ignore it otherwise.

comment by handoflixue · 2012-12-18T23:16:20.214Z · score: 1 (5 votes) · LW · GW

So, I'm sorry if I'm missing something here, but... your claim is that you have evidence, but you don't wish to discuss ANY specifics? Not even one single example?

I mean, yes, I can IMAGINE a hypothetical set of historical data that does that, but I can also imagine the caloric requirements of an elder red dragon.

comment by satt · 2012-12-19T06:40:14.868Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

So, I'm sorry if I'm missing something here, but... your claim is that you have evidence, but you don't wish to discuss ANY specifics? Not even one single example?

I got the impression aronwall is willing to discuss specifics, just not here & now (where they're instead trying to sum up their POV rather than start an object-level argument). Hence the separate blog.

comment by handoflixue · 2012-12-24T19:03:39.982Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

"surely you can at least imagine a hypothetical set of historical data for which I'd be right"

  • aronwall

It feels dishonest to say "The evidence supports me, and I'm sure a reasonable person can see how that would be the case" until and unless you actually are willing to share that evidence.

I know I'd be just as irked if Eliezer made a post saying "Science has proven Cryonics right! I'll let you know the details in a few months", so I don't think it's just bias against the conclusion.

As a POLICY, I don't want posts like the one I replied to here in LessWrong. I want people I can actually engage and talk to, or who are at least clear and up-front that they will engage me later.

If he'd just said "I'm still collecting my thoughts, but I'll get back to you when I'm done" I'd be totally satisfied, but he instead argued for his position AND didn't provide evidence, and that combination just seems like a poisonous mix that could easily lay waste to a nice walled garden like this.

To be clear: my issue is NOT with aronwall, just this one particular comment.

comment by shminux · 2012-12-18T06:48:48.375Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Never mind.

comment by ChristianKl · 2012-12-20T20:01:33.701Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

In your day job, that would be like saying "I'm a String Theorist" and automatically look for arguments against, say, LQG, because LQG is not from your camp. Kinda pointless to argue with someone whose bottom line is prewritten...

Do you think the same about someone who says "I'm an atheist"?

comment by shminux · 2012-12-20T21:29:27.076Z · score: -1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Do you think the same about someone who says "I'm an atheist"?

It's a good question. I get annoyed at them, for sure, if only because they make an untestable assertion. However, most atheists, at least in the US, did not start out this way, so they at some point overcame the motivated cognition fallacy of sticking with the religion of their upbringing. If someone proudly says "I'm an atheist, I grew up in an atheist house" I find it little better then someone looking for supporting arguments for their parents' faith.

comment by blashimov · 2012-12-17T17:49:52.905Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

While I'd be happy to take a look, I have to honestly predict that you won't hear anything you haven't heard before, and you are unlikely to change your mind.

comment by loup-vaillant · 2012-12-18T02:28:52.281Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

You might have an interesting answer to this one: what makes you think your job and your religion are compatible?

comment by aronwall · 2012-12-18T03:47:56.468Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

The lack of any valid arguments that they are incompatible?

But if you want a much more detailed answer, I'm going to be discussing just this question in the next few weeks on my blog. The posts which already exist are trying to define exactly what Science is, in order to lay the groundwork for this.

comment by loup-vaillant · 2012-12-18T11:54:54.511Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks. A sequence of links would be much appreciated. Edit: oops, that was the very object of your post… Checking… argh! 404!

As for the arguments… Well on one hand we have seemingly universal laws of physics, and on the other we have (undetectable) immortal souls and miracles. From a cursory look, that simply doesn't add up. We also have perfectly reasonable explanations for religion in a natural world, making the existence of religion very weak Bayesian evidence for a supernatural world.

Finally, a secondary, but salient, point: if atheism is false, then which form of supernaturalism is true? If one existing human religion is true, which one? Why are you Christian specifically? Do you have any specific reason to believe Christianity is more likely than any other religion, or did you just happen to enjoy a Christian upbringing?

Re-Edit: maybe you addressed those points in your sequence. I'll read it when the links aren't down for me any more.

comment by aronwall · 2012-12-18T21:41:41.555Z · score: 2 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Just to be crystal clear, the series of posts explaining why I think Science and my religion are compatible don't exist yet. What I linked to is a series of posts explaining what I think Science is. I wanted to pin that down first before asking what is, or is not, compatible with it. Besides, how Science works is interesting in its own right.

Although I do believe in an afterlife, I do not believe that the mechanism for this is that the soul is immaterial. My "soul" is a pattern of information in my neurons, which is eventually going to be downloaded to new hardware.

It's true I was raised Christian, but I went through a period of doubt and reflection around the time I was in the 6th grade. I decided then that there was enough evidence specifically for the Resurrection of Jesus to believe in it. It's not a question of whether there are good explanations for religion in general, it's that this partiular sequence of events seems to me highly implausible from a naturalistic perspective.

You could say that my upbringing makes me biased, although that's a catch-22 because there's no course of conduct which can change how I was raised.

I don't think it's just because I was raised Christian---my best friend from college, who was Jewish, very reluctantly agreed with me that the evidence is good, and converted despite the risk that he would be disowned by his father. All I can say is that I decided the evidence was good enough, even taking into account any biases of my own that I can detect. Like always, you just do the best you can.

I understand the pull of the idea that there's a discord (though obviously not a strict logical contradiction) between laws of nature that work so well almost all the time, and exceptional events like miracles. But partly as a result of my experience in physics, I don't think this is as much of a problem as it appears at first glance. But I'm going to be talking about this very thing later on my blog though, so I won't discuss it here and now.

comment by ChristianKl · 2012-12-20T19:58:47.872Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I decided then that there was enough evidence specifically for the Resurrection of Jesus to believe in it.

Do you have written something that explain that evidence in more detail?

comment by occlude · 2012-12-24T07:46:24.941Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Do you have written something that explain that evidence in more detail?

Clicked around out of curiosity and found what appears to be a cursory explanation for Aron's belief in Jesus' resurrection here. First impression is that he has treated NT accounts of Jesus as though they were written by several separate eyewitnesses (in other words, as they're represented in the Bible and by modern Christian churches) and may not be aware of alternative explanations of the origins of the gospels by historians. Lukeprog's journey might be illuminating.

comment by ChristianKl · 2012-12-24T23:55:49.055Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

And in fact, if one looks, much of the evidence for religious claims takes exactly the same form as History, because in fact, it is History (i.e. documents from the past purporting to say what has happened). I refer to the numerous historical documents in which it is claimed that events have occurred by supernatural agency, which are not possible by normal natural means. In other words, claims of miracles.

There are probably much more separate documents that documents the supernatural powers of Uri Geller than there are documents that document the powers of Jesus.

If we want to know whether eyewitness accounts of miracles are true we don't have to focus on pre-20st century claims.

comment by loup-vaillant · 2012-12-19T14:50:47.546Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

/me looks with sudden interest

You are a scientist.

comment by Kingoftheinternet · 2012-12-19T03:10:34.316Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

this partiular sequence of events seems to me highly implausible from a naturalistic perspective

You've noticed that too?

comment by wedrifid · 2012-12-19T15:21:31.389Z · score: -1 (7 votes) · LW · GW

It's true I was raised Christian, but I went through a period of doubt and reflection around the time I was in the 6th grade. I decided then that there was enough evidence specifically for the Resurrection of Jesus to believe in it. It's not a question of whether there are good explanations for religion in general, it's that this partiular sequence of events seems to me highly implausible from a naturalistic perspective.

Kind of a shame the doubt and reflection couldn't hold off a bit longer, so that the critical thinking skills could get some firm foundations before crystallizing the social pressure in there permanently.

comment by aronwall · 2012-12-19T23:36:57.847Z · score: -1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Do you really think that the best way to encourage critical thinking when you're older, is to avoid doing it when you're younger?

comment by wedrifid · 2012-12-20T01:44:46.509Z · score: -1 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Do you really think that the best way to encourage critical thinking when you're older, is to avoid doing it when you're younger?

No, which is why I refrained from saying any such thing.