A Question For People Who Believe In God

post by yanni · 2023-11-24T05:22:40.839Z · LW · GW · No comments

This is a question post.


    2 jacob_cannell
    2 StartAtTheEnd
    2 Nathaniel Monson
    1 alexgieg
    1 Slapstick
    0 yanni
No comments

I was very surprised to watch this video. In it Andrew Huberman talks about how he prays "because it works" and that "he believes in God" because he can't imagine how else life on earth could be where it is now. 

Anyway, it got me thinking, when someone says they "believe in God" does this mean something like "I assign a ≥ 50% probability to there being an omnipotent omnipresent and omniscient intelligence?" 

What does it mean in this context to "believe in" something?



answer by jacob_cannell · 2023-11-25T23:21:14.013Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I was raised agnostic. To be more specific my father - who was a psychiatrist - always answered all my why question chains to the best of his ability, but was pretty adamant that nobody knows for certain what happens when we die: religious people believe in an afterlife, atheists believe there is probably just nothing after death, etc. He was also clear that science favored only the atheist position, religious belief in the afterlife was more about hope over evidence, etc.

I was later interested in religions, but interested in the analytic sense of finding them fascinating, wanting to understand why people believed what they did, how they evolved, etc.

But I still remember when I first heard the simulation argument, and I immediately said "that is the first and only convincing argument for god".

There is pretty obvious alignment between the generalized abstract hope of Christianity and a positive singularity. Something very like the anticipated Christian god could be a very real entity in the future - an aligned superintelligence which expends some fraction of its immense compute on historical simulations for the explicit benevolent purpose of resurrecting the dead. If that is our future, then we already (probably) are in such a simulation now, and the afterlife is very real.

That type of god does exist both inside our physical universe in the future, and also outside of our (current simulated) universe in the present - both are true.

Of course that is no explanation for prayer - all that matters is participation in steering the world towards that positive trajectory (which the now and future 'god' could retroactively reward). It's also not an argument for blind faith: one can hope for the bright future where we are already immortal in a sense, death is defeated, etc, but it is still very much something we have to fight for in the present.

answer by StartAtTheEnd · 2023-11-25T12:21:12.852Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If I can find reasons for having beliefs that makes life more interesting than a purely scientific and materialistic worldview, I usually let them deceive me as much as possible as such beliefs are beneficial to my enjoyment of life.

The idea that a god exist is not all that illogical in itself (since every other theory of origin is just as crazy), but if you asked if I believed in, say, Christianity, then no.

Praying works, for the same reason that visualization works. It's a placebo effect which cases self-fulfilling prophecies by priming the brain towards a specific target and giving us the belief that it's possible to reach said target. The belief that something is possible makes it much more likely that we find a solution when a solution exists (There's many articles on this idea on both LW and Gwern's site, but I can't remember any titles right now). This idea is often called "the law of attraction" and considered paranormal by people who don't know how it works.

I don't personally believe in god, but I try to believe in something, and this something lacks a word, so "god" usually suffices. What it means is merely is something human is mixed together with the mechanical and indifferent. A purpose, an intention, a reason, or a bias. Anything beyond an indifferent and senseless chain of cause and effects which appeared for no reason whatsoever.

I can't speak for other people, but I expect that there's many diverse takes on your question. There's not one specific group, but a lot of scattered viewpoints. There might be clusters in god-related-beliefs-space, but I expect those to be clusters of regular religious people

answer by Nathaniel Monson · 2023-11-24T06:49:00.285Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't think I believe in God anymore--certainly not in the way I used to--but I think if you'd asked me 3 years ago, I would have said that I take it as axiomatic that God exists. If you have any kind of consistent epistemology, you need some base beliefs from which to draw the conclusions and one of mine was the existence of an entity that cared about me (and everyone on earth) on a personal level and was sufficiently more wise/intelligent/powerful/knowledgeable than me that I may as well think of it as infinitely so.

I think the religious people I know who've thought deeply about their epistemology take either the existence of God or the reliability of a sort of spiritual sensory modality as an axiom.

While I no longer believe in God, I don't think I had a perspective any less epistemically rational then than I do now. I don't think there's a way to use rationality to pick axioms, the process is inherently arational (for the first few, anyway).

comment by Ninety-Three · 2023-11-24T14:19:43.465Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Surely some axioms can be more rationally chosen than others. For instance, "There is a teapot orbiting the sun somewhere between Earth and Mars" looks like a silly axiom, but "there is a round cube orbiting the sun somewhere between Earth and Mars" looks even sillier. Assuming the possibility of round cubes seems somehow more "epistemically expensive" than assuming the possibility of teapots.

Replies from: nathaniel-monson
comment by Nathaniel Monson (nathaniel-monson) · 2023-11-24T15:28:46.629Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This is why I added "for the first few". Let's not worry about the location, just say "there is a round cube" and "there is a teapot".

Before you can get to either of these axioms , you need some things like "there is a thing I'm going to call reality that it's worth trying to deal with" and "language has enough correspondence to reality to be useful". With those and some similar very low level base axioms in place (and depending on your definitions of round and cube and teapot), I agree that one or another of the axioms could reasonably be called more or less reasonable, rational, probable, etc.

I think when I believed in God, it was roughly third on the list? Certainly before usefulness of language. The first two were something like me existing in time, with a history and memories that had some accuracy, and sense-data being useful.

Replies from: Ninety-Three
comment by Ninety-Three · 2023-11-24T17:29:03.020Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

All your examples of high-tier axioms seem to fall into the category of "necessary to proceed", the sort of thing where you can't really do any further epistemology if the proposition is false. How did the God axiom either have that quality or end up high on the list without it?

Replies from: nathaniel-monson
comment by Nathaniel Monson (nathaniel-monson) · 2023-11-24T18:24:47.284Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm not really sure how it ended up there--probably childhood teaching inducing that particular brain-structure? It's just something that was a fundamental part of who I understood myself to be, and how I interpreted my memories/experiences/sense-data. After I stopped believing in God, I definitely also stopped believing that I existed. Obviously, this-body-with-a-mind exists, but I had not identified myself as being that object previously--I had identified myself as the-spirit-inhabiting-this-body, and I no longer believed that existed.

answer by alexgieg · 2023-11-27T21:04:22.337Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The answer is threefold.

a) First, religious and spiritual perspectives are a primarily a perceptual experience, not a set of beliefs. For those who have this perception, the object of which is technically named "the numinous", it is self-evident. The numinous stuff clearly "is there", for anyone to see/feel/notice/perceive/experience/etc., and they cannot quite grasp the concept of someone saying they notice nothing.

Here are two analogies of how this works.

For people with numinal perception, hearing "it's pretty, but that's all" is somewhat similar to someone with perfect vision hearing from a born blind person they don't see anything. The person with vision can only imagine "not seeing" as "seeing a black background", similar to what they perceive when they close their eyes or are in a perfectly dark room. Not seeing isn't seeing black, it's not seeing.

Consider, for another analogy, that a dove with normally functioning magnetic field sensing were able to talk, and it asked you: "So, if you don't feel North, which direction do you feel?" You'd reply "none", and the dove would at most be able to imagine you feel something like up or down, because they cannot grasp what it is like not to physically feel cardinal directions.

The opposite also applies. People with no numinous perception at all are baffled by those with it describing they perceive something that quite evidently isn't there. Their immediate take is that the person is self-deluded, or maybe suffering from some perceptual issue, maybe even schizophrenic, if not outright lying. At their most charitable, they'll attribute this perceptual error to a form of synesthesia.

Unsurprisingly, it's much more likely to be a Theist or similar if one has numinous perception, and much easier to be an Atheist if one doesn't have it, though there are exceptions. I don't remember if it was Carl Sagan or Isaac Asimov, but I recall one of them explaining in an interview they did have this perception of a "something" there (I don't think they referred to it by its name), and were thus constantly tempted towards becoming religious, but kept fighting against that impulse due to knowing it as a mental trick.

b) Thus, if we establish numinal perception is a thing, it becomes easy to understand what religions and spiritual beliefs are. Supernatural belief system are attempts, some tentative and in broad strokes, others quite systematic, to account for these perceptions, starting from the premise they're perceptions of objective phenomena, not of merely subjective, mental constructs.

Interestingly, in my experience talking with people with this perception, what's perceived as numinal varies from one to the other, which likely account for religious preferences when one has a choice.

For example, for some the navy of a Catholic cathedral is shock full of the numinal, while a crystal clear waterfall in a forest is just pretty but not numinal at all. Those with this kind of numinal perception are more likely to be Christian.

For others, it's the reverse. Those are more likely to go for some religion more focused on nature things, some form of native religiosity, unstructured spirituality, animism or the like.

For others yet, they feel the numinal in both contexts. These will be all in with syncretisms, complex ontological takes, and the like.

c) Finally, on whether perceived numinous thingies are objectively real or not depends on one's philosophical assumptions.

If one's on the side of reductionism, then they're clearly some kind of mental epiphenomena either advantageous or at least not-disadvantegeous for survival, so it keeps being expressed.

If one's an antireductionist, they can say numinous thingies are quite real, but made of pure qualia, without any measurable counterpart to make it numerically apprehensible, so either one has the sensory apparatus to perceive them, or they don't, external devices won't help.

And the main issue here is the choice for either reductionism or antireductionism is axiomatic. One either prefers one, and goes with it, or prefers the other, and goes with it. There's no extrinsic way to decide, only opposite arguments that tend to cancel out.

In conclusion:

To more directly answer the question then, when someone says they believe in God, what they mean is they perceive a certain numinal thing-y, and that the most accurate way to describe that numinal thing-y is with the word "God", plus the entire set of concepts that come with it in the belief system they're attuned with.

If they abandoned this specific explanatory system, that wouldn't affect their numinal perception qua perception, so they'd likely either go with another explanation they felt covered their perception even better, or more rarely actively force themselves to resist accepting the reality of that perception. The perception itself would remain there, calling for their attention.

answer by Slapstick · 2023-11-24T16:50:58.569Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I have a very religious background but currently I'm not sure whether you would consider me religious. (Also to be clear I watched most of the video but I don't know much about him otherwise)

I think when hearing people share about personal things in the category of religion, it's important to try to be careful when pattern matching or when making assumptions about what beliefs people hold. People can use very similar words to refer to vastly different metaphysical beliefs. Two people could also have very similar metaphysical priors, and one might use more religious coded language due to their cultural background, whereas the other might not.

When he says that prayer works, I don't think you should necessarily take him to mean that he is communicating with an omni*** being who is making changes to our reality based on that communication.

For all intents and purposes he would probably concede to reducing prayer to a form of psychologically theraputic meditation. However, I think part of adopting a religious attitude is a hesitancy towards being reductive in that way.

Anyway, it got me thinking, when someone says they "believe in God" does this mean something like "I assign a ≥ 50% probability to there being an omnipotent omnipresent and omniscient intelligence?"

This is a good question, but how someone responds will vary a lot person to person, and it will be very difficult to converge on a common enough understanding of the meaning of words sufficient to get a clear answer.

For many people, it's more about adopting a kind of mental attitude, rather than something that can easily be understood by trying to clarify a probability.

Then, many people would just unequivocally answer that they assign a greater than 50% probability. Many of those people would go further to say that they'd assign a 100% probability. There's certain kinds of experiences that have a sort of self evident transcendent seeming quality to them, I've had these experiences, so it's easy for me to understand why some religious people would interpret that as a kind of ontological evidence for their own specific views. I just think they're making an error.

answer by yanni · 2023-11-24T05:31:34.760Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Another tangentially related question: how do you update on the non-religious-related views of someone (like Huberman) after they say they believe in God? Do they become less trustworthy on other topics?

comment by Rafael Harth (sil-ver) · 2023-11-24T08:42:43.884Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes. There's a stigma against criticizing people for their faith (and for good reason), but at the end of the day, it's a totally legitimate move to update on someone's rationality based on what they believe. Just don't mention it in most contexts.

Replies from: Slapstick
comment by Slapstick · 2023-11-24T18:54:21.089Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think I agree with this, but I also think it's really important to avoid making too many assumptions about what people believe when they say they're religious or practice religion . People often use similar language and labels to signify a very broad range of beliefs and views.

comment by Viliam · 2023-11-24T08:04:13.969Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I would probably put much less trust in their statements containing "it's going to be okay", because I would assume that their assumed reason why things are going to be okay is a supernatural intervention.

And practically zero trust in any excuses they make about history of religion (such as "actually, inquisition was not that bad; they only tortured you if you were a bad guy, and they didn't hurt you much"), because there is practically an entire industry of motivated thinkers whitewashing the history of religion.

But on topics of practical life, there is little difference. Well, except for some sensitive topics such as gender norms and sexual behavior, because I would expect that they talk about what should be (according to Bible) rather than what actually is.


By the way, you are probably not going to find many people who believe in God here. If you want answers from a smart but religious audience, you might have better luck at Astral Codex Ten. (For maximum engagement wait until November 27th when Scott makes Open Thread 304, and post there. The current Open Thread already contains too much.)

Replies from: dr_s
comment by dr_s · 2023-11-24T08:50:40.679Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

But on topics of practical life, there is little difference. Well, except for some sensitive topics such as gender norms and sexual behavior, because I would expect that they talk about what should be (according to Bible) rather than what actually is.

TBF that's specifically if the god they believe in is the Christian one. But in general I think some other points hold: someone who believes in an intelligent creative force behind the universe (even a non-conventional one) is more likely to believe intervention at some point is possible, or to hold moral realist views. But neither is a requirement; the most bare form of belief in a God, the "clockmaker deity" of Voltaire and such, pretty much comes with no strings attached. It's just saying "the universe's first cause possesses self-awareness and intentionality", which as far as we can tell is impossible to prove or disprove.

I suppose you could still imagine that if said first cause was also superintelligent, then they might have set things up just right that eventually they went the way they wanted, with no need for further interventions; but I'd contend that you can probably show that no ordinary computation could predict you the universe without outright simulating the universe, so the universe itself would be the computation. Unless of course which ever layer of existence this first cause subsists on somehow obeys not just different physical laws, but different logical/mathematical ones, such that it allows things that are computationally impossible here. Hard to even imagine how that works though, mathematics seems just so... absolute. I'm not sure what a world in which the halting problem is solvable would have to look like. Maybe acausal?

Replies from: Viliam
comment by Viliam · 2023-11-25T20:50:40.428Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's just saying "the universe's first cause possesses self-awareness and intentionality", which as far as we can tell is impossible to prove or disprove.

I would still assume that someone who believes such weird hypothesis for no good reason probably also believes other things for no good reason.

(If there is no evidence either way, there is still Occam's razor. If you ignore it, so be it, but I will assume that you also ignore it in other situations.)

comment by Prakrti Zephyr · 2023-11-24T06:48:38.941Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

When I was a materialist, I would immediately lose epistemic respect for anyone that expressed any spiritual beliefs.

Then I started having lots of experiences that forced me to discredit materialism and embrace some spiritual beliefs.

Now I don't judge someone's whole epistemics by that binary criteria anymore. But I have empathy for those that do judge in either direction, because I understand where they are coming from.

Replies from: dr_s
comment by dr_s · 2023-11-24T08:54:46.225Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Then I started having lots of experiences that forced me to discredit materialism and embrace some spiritual beliefs.

This kind of statement always puzzles me a bit. What kind of experience can absolutely be ruled out as being materialist and admits only a spiritual explanation? Like, no matter what one experiences, the experience itself can always be mediated by our brain firing in certain ways, so there's an obvious layer susceptible to hacking there. And even an experience that can come with things that couldn't be internally justified (e.g. knowledge you shouldn't possess) could still be explained by some material laws we simply don't understand yet. I don't get what precisely "evidence that makes me update away from materialism towards dualism" could possibly look like, because those are two frameworks that can be used to explain the same exact things. Like interpretations of QM.

Replies from: mishka
comment by mishka · 2023-11-24T13:33:54.764Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

What kind of experience can absolutely be ruled out as being materialist and admits only a spiritual explanation?

But it does not have to be absolute, right?

Both rationally and pragmatically, this should depend on one's priors.

And speaking in terms of priors, when I talk to someone I usually don't attempt to increase my certainty that the experience is not a hallucination by trying to touch that person.

Realistically, if life is sufficiently infused with spiritual experiences, then they tend to become a part of the world's model. If one's priors are overwhelmingly against that, then one can still focus on materialistic explanation, but if one's priors are sufficiently flexible, one would probably end up with Occam-razor-like view (if there are too many spiritual experiences in one's life, it's not very parsimonious to have to explain each of them away, it's easier to just integrate them into one's worldview as primary empirical material, just like one does with most of the empirical material).

Often a different thing happens. One suddenly has a very strong spiritual experience or a series of those, and one believes rather strongly for a while, because the whole thing is so overwhelming, but after a period of time the spiritual experiences stop being that radical, the memory of them fades, one steps back and reanalyzes them and one might eventually to came to a rather agnostic conclusion about all that (or one might retain a weak belief, or revert to real materialism).

Replies from: dr_s
comment by dr_s · 2023-11-24T14:43:05.514Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

My point is, what even defines an experience as "spiritual"? It seems to me like this is almost a pre-empirical metaphysical belief, one that can't simply work as "I did not believe in it, then I had an experience, now I believe". If you see the world in a material framework, pretty much everything can be explained by it. Any kind of mind altering experience for example can obviously just be in one's brain - does not have to be depending on your views on consciousness, but can. And it's not like the higher intensity of feeling would change that. As long as feeling is just an internal phenomenon to my brain, it can be of any intensity and that's no evidence at all of anything else than my brain acting funny. So it's not clear what would separate "spiritual experience" from simply "temporary mind impairment". Unless e.g. one could indeed attest things like "I predicted the future" or "I learned of true things that I could not have otherwise known", which would at least, if reliably observed, be evidence for ESP - but even ESP does not need to be explained in a dualistic, rather than materialistic, framework.

Mostly, any kind of dual substance (spirit, soul, what have you) that:

  • regularly and bi-directionally interacts with ordinary matter
  • obeys some kind of consistent set of rules

is just matter with extra steps. So materialism can almost by definition subsume any of these phenomena, even if unknown, as long as they can be empirically observed, tested and predicted.

Replies from: mishka
comment by mishka · 2023-11-24T15:55:19.451Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Any kind of mind altering experience for example can obviously just be in one's brain - does not have to be depending on your views on consciousness, but can.

Right. If one follows the "standard mainstream scientific framework", any kind of experience whatsoever (including experience of hearing and seeing another person talking to you) is in one's brain, the only question is what induces that experience, what is the world model behind it.

So materialism can almost by definition subsume any of these phenomena, even if unknown, as long as they can be empirically observed, tested and predicted.

Yes, but should it? This depends on one's priors. If one has very firm priors in favor of materialism, it's one thing. If one starts from a more agnostic and open-minded position, then it's different.

Cf. https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/NyiFLzSrkfkDW4S7o/why-it-s-so-hard-to-talk-about-consciousness [LW · GW] which notes that on the qualia-related group of issues people are mostly divided into 2 camps which don't really understand each other:

The basic model I'm proposing is that core intuitions about consciousness tend to cluster into two camps, with most miscommunication being the result of someone failing to communicate with the other camp. For this post, we'll call the camp of boldface author Camp #1 and the camp of quotation author Camp #2.

For example, for people who are in Camp #2 and think it makes sense to talk about qualia, and who are aware that if materialistic solution to the "hard problem of qualia" is at all possible, it is way in the future and not currently available, it makes much more sense to question materialism.

Whereas I would expect people from Camp #1 to be leaning much more towards materialism...

Replies from: dr_s
comment by dr_s · 2023-11-24T16:07:03.673Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, but should it? This depends on one's priors. If one has very firm priors in favor of materialism, it's one thing. If one starts from a more agnostic and open-minded position, then it's different.

No, it's not, that's my point in saying this is a metaphysical position. It is not possible to perform updates on it at all. What you call "open minded" is "you already believe that a certain kind of experience qualifies as spiritual", so you are already a dualist; you just don't know when and how can the other substance be triggered. If a single falsifiable prediction about what things are and aren't possible in a materialist vs. dualist world can't be produced, then these two frameworks aren't two sides of a testable hypothesis - instead, they are two different ways of describing and understanding the same thing.

Even bringing qualia into it doesn't really fix things. Suppose we assume qualia are indeed the product of some spiritual substance, in some way. How can you distinguish a "pure qualia" experience from a merely "brain doing funny things" one? We know that brain stuff it's somewhere in the regular pipeline that produces qualia, so there is a coupling there.

And again, supposing you can e.g. prove there is such a thing as a soul, what would be the difference between a true dualist framework vs. simply an extended materialism one, in which you add to your model of the world one special kind of particle/force/matter that carries consciousness? And what kind of experience would be such that it constitutes evidence in favour of it?

Replies from: mishka
comment by mishka · 2023-11-24T16:13:53.348Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

What you call "open minded" is "you already believe that a certain kind of experience qualifies as spiritual"

What if you are not sure?

For example, in a purely epistemological sense, I personally believe in the need to maintain a good deal of agnosticism.

Then the question becomes: if one decides that the ground rules are to maintain a good deal of agnosticism, and to admit a variety of world models as possibilities (let's say, to put significant priors on each in a variety of mutually incompatible world models "being actually true"), then how should one move adjusting those priors depending on the evidence?

I presume that the goal is not to push some of those priors to zero, but to change their relative values...

Replies from: dr_s
comment by dr_s · 2023-11-24T16:27:11.039Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's irrelevant. If a belief isn't of the empirical type, then no information can allow you to meaningfully update. You'll have a certain number and either stick to it your whole life or modify it arbitrarily.

As I'm saying, what does an empirical discrimination between spiritual and non-spiritual worlds look like? What kind of experience would increase or decrease your belief in a spiritual reality, and why would it - as in, what makes some rule of the world unique enough to qualify as a "dual" of material reality rather than just another part of it? That's my question. If you can answer it, then maybe meaningful updates are possible; otherwise they're not, and everyone will merrily go on believing what they already do, whatever happens.

Replies from: mishka
comment by mishka · 2023-11-24T16:46:07.402Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

everyone will merrily go on believing what they already do, whatever happens.

I certainly have been updating my personal views in this sense rather drastically.

So, empirically, "believing what they already do" does not seem to universally hold.

I don't think the change is arbitrary at all. The change is guided by my intuition about all this. Let's see if we can formalize this a bit.

Let's say... let's consider a "multinomial approximation to agnosticism", where one takes a finite number of mutually exclusive possibilities and assigns some non-zero priors to them.

Then one conditions how likely an experience seems to be, conditional on a particular world view. If the experience seems less likely that the likelyhood of that particular world view being true according to one's current prior, then one adjusts that prior down somewhat. One does this for each world view in one's set of mutually exclusive possibilities.

And if some priors go down, then other priors are going up, because one still wants them to sum up to 1. And the priors for worldviews particularly compatible with this experience eat up most of this increase.

(I understand that what I am doing here is very crude, a true Bayesian should be able to do better. But I think it looks likely that one can make all this more precise and create an epistemologically reasonable procedure for adjusting one's priors here.)

Replies from: dr_s, mishka
comment by dr_s · 2023-11-24T17:09:39.209Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You keep missing the main point: why does a certain experience seem more or less likely based on a spiritual vs materialist world view?

That's what it takes for a meaningful update. . But what experience could possibly have that property? If I trip balls, and see God himself descend from His Heaven, amidst a choir of angels who sing with beauty that makes me cry and shiver, and He speaks to me and says "BELIEVE", His voice shaking my very core... what distinguishes that from just some very fancy hallucination my brain came up with while tripping balls?


That's the point. It is utterly impossible to tell whether the experience is "spiritual" or not because I know my qualia are at the mercy of a few kg of electric meat that sometimes goes on the fritz because I gave it the wrong chemicals or I slept too little or it just decided to do so. If you're inclined to believe it is spiritual, you will consider it validating. If you're inclined to believe it is material, you'll seek psychiatric help. But either way the experience conveys no new information - it just reflects your priors at you.

So now I ask, what kind of experience would most definitely NOT do that, and instead provide genuine new information that I can recognise as such? Because that's the only kind of experience that one can truly update on.

Replies from: ben-lang, mishka
comment by Ben (ben-lang) · 2023-11-24T17:42:55.907Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You seem to be saying that the existence or not of god does not follow the usual rules of updating your beliefs based on evidence. I disagree with that.

Say, for example, that you put a very low (possibly zero) probability on the idea that god exists. Your argument seems to be saying that there is no sensory experience whatsoever that should make this hypothetical atheist update their beliefs on that point. Even seeing God, convincingly turn up and speak to them, repeatedly, many times, until its as normal as seeing the sky, should not apparently convince them.

I think this is bad reasoning. Yes, sensory experience can be flawed, drugs can addle your mind. That just means you don't update all the way. I believe in the moon, but I cannot completely rule out that I have been drugged and its a hallucination. I don't think that the rules of logic and evidence should have an exception clause for spiritual or godlike entities.

Replies from: dr_s
comment by dr_s · 2023-11-24T18:01:47.932Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I am here more thinking of "spiritual experiences" as e.g. visions or dreams. I do think that for example a miracle that leaves more tangible, durable proof is definitely evidence that updates towards the existence of some power causing that miracle.

However the point I'm making is a bit subtler. Even the existence of gods or demons need not imply a dualist worldview. There could be entities that possess immense power and obey rules that we still do not understand; but as long as we can, with study and observation, bring them into the fold of the causal relationships between various interlocking parts of the universe, they can perfectly fit within a materialist worldview. Consider most fantasy worlds with hard magic systems, in which crazy stuff happens daily, but it all works exactly like their local version of science - there is nothing mystical about it once it's understood.

So what I mean is more, what qualifies an experience as "spiritual"? For example, you can be a panpsychist and that would imply all sorts of weird possibilities (including small consciousnesses in nature and objects, like Japanese kami, and massive gestalt divine consciousnesses in the planet or the universe itself), but it would all still obey the rules of a single world made of matter. It just updates our understanding of what the properties of matter are. Dualism is a much weirder claim; for something to be spiritual it has to be in some way fundamentally different from the regular sort of matter (so for example acausal).

Replies from: ben-lang
comment by Ben (ben-lang) · 2023-11-24T19:12:14.894Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I understand what you mean now. Thanks for clarifying.

Its like the old argument about how if a "miracle" is defined as something that breaks the fundamental laws of physics then they can't happen by definition. Observing Jesus water walking only indicates that the true laws of physics controlling buoyancy contain an exception for which a sufficient cause is being the son of god. (Its not that the code wasn't followed, but that it contained "if" statements).

If we find a "god" who seems a lot like the ones people worship (eg, actually fathered a man called Jesus), but is made of some kind of real physical stuff (a type of matter or energy, or some new thing as yet undiscovered), then I would chalk that up as a victory for the theists, definitional issues aside. I think the only logically reasonable way of interpreting theists is to take them as postulating real physical things (made of some kind of matter, or other thing not yet understood by science). Obviously on firm evidence of such beings step one is to study them extensively. Find ways of harnessing, their capabilities. Once they were understood, and "god" derived spirits or materials were commonplace they would seem no more special than radioactivity or computers.

Often in fantasy settings with magic systems the author seems to realize that they have turned magic into a "mundane" thing that is no more special in there world than radioactivity is in ours.  This cane lead them to draw a distiniction between two levels of magic, the explained "ordinary", "mundane" magic (the one power in Wheel of time, "Wingardium Leviosa" in Harry Potter). And a deeper level of magic with less reasoned rules (the True Power in wheel of time, Harry's mothers love protecting him in Harry potter).

(Sorry for the wall of text ramble, I think its an interesting distinction you are making.)

comment by mishka · 2023-11-24T17:15:17.548Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

But that's not how one operates in the world.

One knows that in principle anything can be a hallucination, and that only very rare events have true certainty (and perhaps none, because how can one be sure that information is genuinely new), but going by this, one would hardly be able to operate a car or do anything remotely risky, because anything one sees can be a hallucination.

Instead one is just doing what feels intuitively reasonable, occasionally pausing to ponder all this.

So, here it is the same, one is leaning towards what feels intuitively reasonable, occasionally pausing to ponder all this at the meta-level.

Replies from: dr_s
comment by dr_s · 2023-11-24T18:09:41.514Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

One knows that in principle anything can be a hallucination, and that only very rare events have true certainty

Well, precisely, so some metaphysical axioms I just take on faith, because that's all I can do. Maybe I'm a Boltzmann brain existing only for a moment, but that's not actionable, so I scratch that. And if one of my metaphysical axioms is "the world is made only of things that are empirically observable, causal, and at their fundamental level passive" (so I don't expect some tricky demon to purposefully mess with my observations in ways I couldn't possibly detect), then that's it. I can't really update away from it, because the entire framework of my epistemology (including the very notion of beliefs and Bayesian updates!) rests on it. I can fit in it all sorts of entities - including gods, demons, angels and ghosts - just fine, but I need those to still be causal, emergent entities, just like you and me, subject to some kind of natural, regular, causal law, if not the ones I'm used to. Otherwise, I got nothing.

Replies from: mishka
comment by mishka · 2023-11-24T22:23:42.061Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

But if I get a feel that those metaphysical axioms no longer fit without contorting things too much, I easily replace them...

This is even easier for me, because I have the current "default set" of those axioms, the one which I intuitively rely upon when I don't do any special efforts, and the alternative sets of axioms, which I think about when I ponder all this philosophically.

I am very much aware that there is no "objective way" to choose among those sets of axioms, and that, moreover, the "true set of axioms" might not even be among the candidate sets I am aware of.

But that does not in any way prevent me from letting one of the sets of axioms I aware of to replace my current "default set of axioms" if my intuition starts suggesting that the other set of axioms fits better. That happens way before I ponder this kind of shift in my axioms philosophically and reflect on it.

So, in one period of my life I might feel materialistic, and I might live accordingly, and in a different period of my life I might feel "connected to a higher entity", and I would live accordingly, and in yet another period I feel particularly agnostic and I would stay on a meta-level and focus on how I am not really sure...

Replies from: dr_s, mishka
comment by dr_s · 2023-11-25T10:55:46.670Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

But I don't think you can call such a process a Bayesian update. Again, it would require you placing conditional probabilities on the various metaphysical axioms - but the very concept of probabilities and Bayes' theorem are built upon those axioms. If causality doesn't always hold, if there are entities that do not need to obey it, then Bayes' theorem doesn't apply to them. It's just your own personal conviction shift, but you shouldn't use Bayesian updates as a framework to think about it, nor fall prey to the illusion that it makes your decision process any better in this kind of thing. It doesn't. Everyone is just as clueless as everyone else on these matters and no one has any hope to know better. You may pick your metaphysical axioms as they were revealed to you in a dream and they'll be as good as anything.

Replies from: mishka
comment by mishka · 2023-11-25T16:45:41.702Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You may pick your metaphysical axioms as they were revealed to you in a dream and they'll be as good as anything.

But that's not arbitrary at all. That probably reflects some deep subconscious intuitions which are not arbitrary.

And these kinds of intuitive updates happen first, before philosophical reflections on the meta-level.

But then we are the type of people inclined to philosophically reflect on the meta-level about all this. One can argue whether these reflections make any sense or not, we'll still continue to reflect on the meta-level once in a while and we'll try to apply some non-rigorous approximate reasoning, since fully rigorous reasoning is not available.

In fact, this dialog between us is an example of this kind of meta-level reflection.

comment by mishka · 2023-11-24T22:43:48.691Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sometimes I am thinking about those metaphyhical sets of axioms as "philosophical coordinate systems", and one of those "philosophical coordinate systems"_ might feel more convenient at a given moment, and another one might feel more convenient at a given moment, depending on how reality looks...

When I think about this philosophically, I don't think about one of them being "really true", and others not being "really true". Instead, in recent years I tend to think about a multiverse, with me moving between branches of reality, between alternative realities, with those realities being governed by different systems of axioms and having somewhat different phenomenologies.

comment by mishka · 2023-11-24T16:59:58.358Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

And, for example, if one is agnostic in principle, but has one dominant world view, so one of these priors is large and other priors are small, and things which happen feel very weird, this is a good reason to make one's dominant prior smaller (and hence make other priors larger).

comment by yanni · 2023-11-25T07:08:27.446Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm curious to know why people downvoted this comment.

Replies from: gilch
comment by gilch · 2023-11-27T21:21:43.022Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I didn't downvote, but to hazard a guess, this should have been submitted as a New Comment, but it was inappropriately submitted as a New Answer to the original question, which it clearly doesn't attempt to answer. (It is possible to edit an Answer into a Comment.)

Replies from: yanni
comment by yanni · 2023-11-28T00:45:26.354Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Good to know! i'm still working out the features of the site :)

comment by Cornelius O. · 2023-11-24T06:23:13.211Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Hello, I have a personal experience to share on this.

TLDR: Getting deep into science exposes you to mechanics of the universe, which make you believe into them more than into yourself. The spiritual force coming from deep science is the ultimate "I know that I know nothing". It´s not about the modern use of "god" as a personification, but "god" as the feeling of something greater and something that directs the flow of events.

I am from Germany and my parents did not assign me a religion. When I was young, I thought that religion was some old, outdated relict of times when we burnt each other to death. 
However, as I grew older, my interest into quantum science and light-matter-intersections got me thinking.
I started working as a chemical laboratory assistant. What I have learned is the typical greek wisdom: 

I now know that I don´t know anything at all. 

Chemistry is a "good guess", the action in the lab is occaisionally totally different from the theory, because there are non-linear influences that you cannot always control. A slight temperature or moisture change in the room, and effects take command of your synthesis, which you´re not even aware they exist.

The more effects I study, from biology to physics to chemistry and all together, the more I see how crazy wonderful our existence is.

The glance, that all these things play together and result in my feeling of the present moment, is elevating. 

Those forces, this universe, becomes my "god". An unlimited amount of crazy effects fall into harmony and build and built everything, forever.

Andrew Huberman might have had a similar realisation process.

Feel free to comment on this. :)

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