No, Really, I've Deceived Myself

post by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2009-03-04T23:29:50.910Z · score: 83 (80 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 80 comments

I recently spoke with a person who... it's difficult to describe.  Nominally, she was an Orthodox Jew.  She was also highly intelligent, conversant with some of the archaeological evidence against her religion, and the shallow standard arguments against religion that religious people know about.  For example, she knew that Mordecai, Esther, Haman, and Vashti were not in the Persian historical records, but that there was a corresponding old Persian legend about the Babylonian gods Marduk and Ishtar, and the rival Elamite gods Humman and Vashti.  She knows this, and she still celebrates Purim.  One of those highly intelligent religious people who stew in their own contradictions for years, elaborating and tweaking, until their minds look like the inside of an M. C. Escher painting.

Most people like this will pretend that they are much too wise to talk to atheists, but she was willing to talk with me for a few hours.

As a result, I now understand at least one more thing about self-deception that I didn't explicitly understand before—namely, that you don't have to really deceive yourself so long as you believe you've deceived yourself.  Call it "belief in self-deception".

When this woman was in high school, she thought she was an atheist.  But she decided, at that time, that she should act as if she believed in God.  And then—she told me earnestly—over time, she came to really believe in God.

So far as I can tell, she is completely wrong about that.  Always throughout our conversation, she said, over and over, "I believe in God", never once, "There is a God."  When I asked her why she was religious, she never once talked about the consequences of God existing, only about the consequences of believing in God.  Never, "God will help me", always, "my belief in God helps me".  When I put to her, "Someone who just wanted the truth and looked at our universe would not even invent God as a hypothesis," she agreed outright.

She hasn't actually deceived herself into believing that God exists or that the Jewish religion is true.  Not even close, so far as I can tell.

On the other hand, I think she really does believe she has deceived herself.

So although she does not receive any benefit of believing in God—because she doesn't—she honestly believes she has deceived herself into believing in God, and so she honestly expects to receive the benefits that she associates with deceiving oneself into believing in God; and that, I suppose, ought to produce much the same placebo effect as actually believing in God.

And this may explain why she was motivated to earnestly defend the statement that she believed in God from my skeptical questioning, while never saying "Oh, and by the way, God actually does exist" or even seeming the slightest bit interested in the proposition.


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comment by Liron · 2009-03-05T04:47:05.923Z · score: 25 (19 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Eliezer's post focuses on the distinction between two concepts a person can believe (hereby called "narratives"):

  1. "God is real."

  2. "I have something that qualifies as a 'belief in God'."

Either narrative will be associated with positive things in the person's mind. And the person, particularly with narrative #2, often forms a meta-narrative:

3. "My belief in God has positive effects in my life."

But: Unlike the meta-narrative, our analysis should not proceed as if the relationship between narrative and effects is a simple causal link.

The actual cognitive process that determines the narrative might go something like this:

  • Notice that the desirable aspects of life enjoyed by religious people in the community conflict with undesirable properties (e.g. falsehood, silliness, uselessness) of religious beliefs.

  • Trigger a search: "How do I make the undesirable properties go away while keeping benefits?"

  • Settle on a local optimum way of thinking, according to some evaluation algorithm that is attracted by predictions of certain consequences and repulsed by others.

The search can have a very different character from one individual to another. For example, if the idea of not having a defensible narrative isn't repulsive, then the person says: "I'm happy in my religious community, so I don't think too hard about my religion." The kind of thing they are actually repulsed by would be "for me or my peers to believe that I am not a fully committed member of my in-group".

Or, if the person is given to conscious reasoning, then it would be extremely repulsive to not have a defensible narrative. What their search evaluation algorithm is actually repulsed by might be something like, "the self-doubt that I am not a capable reasoner", or "the loss of respect and status among other intellectuals". So the quick fix is: Add more layers of justification and arguments surrounding religion, so that both you and your peers can plausibly feel that you are a capable reasoner occupying a justifyable stance on a complex issue.

So regarding Eliezer's post, it's not surprising that someone with narrative #2 can get a "placebo" version of the positive effects that come with narrative #1. The narrative doesn't independently cause the positive effects; the narrative is shaped by a cognitive algorithm that predicts the benefits of believing it.

comment by thomblake · 2009-03-05T14:43:36.548Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Also note the historical benefits to religion being in a 'separate magisterium' - scientists could go about the business of science without being hassled by religious conflicts (internal and external) and people in Europe didn't feel so much of a need to kill each other over heresy anymore. (cf. The Baby-Eaters)

EDIT: fixed spelling of cf.

comment by 27chaos · 2014-11-18T19:19:28.347Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The narrative doesn't independently cause the positive effects; the narrative is shaped by a cognitive algorithm that predicts the benefits of believing it.

Great point! Very insightful of you.

I wonder if there are other examples of this that can be found in human psychology.

comment by Scott Alexander (Yvain) · 2009-03-05T18:17:05.824Z · score: 20 (26 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

When I first read "Belief in Belief", I liked it, and agreed with it, but I thought it was describing a curiousity; an exotic specimen of irrationality for us to oooh and aaah over. I mentally applied it to Unitarians and Reform Jews and that was about it.

I've since started wondering more and more if it actually describes a majority of religious people. I don't know if this is how Eliezer intended it, but it was two things that really convinced me:

The first reason was behavior. Most theists I know occasionally deviate from their religious principles; not egregiously, but they're far from perfect. But when I imagine a world that would make me believe religion with certainty - a world where angels routinely descend to people's bedsides to carry their souls to Heaven, or where Satan allows National Geographic into Hell to film a documentary - I find it hard to imagine people sleeping in on Sundays. Not even the most hardened criminal will steal when the policeman's right in front of him and the punishment is infinite.

The second was a webcomic: It wasn't so much that theists wouldn't drink the poison as that they'd be surprised, even offended at being asked. It would seem like a cheap trick. Whereas (for example) I would be happy to prove my "faith" in science by ingesting poison after I'd taken an antidote proven to work in clinical trials.

I see two ways this issue is directly important to rationalists:

  1. Is this solely a religious phenomenon, or are our own beliefs vulnerable to this kind of self-deception?

  2. What kind of tests can we create to determine whether a belief is sincerely held?

comment by Strilanc · 2014-12-09T17:50:09.352Z · score: 11 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I would be happy to prove my "faith" in science by ingesting poison after I'd taken an antidote proven to work in clinical trials.

This is one of the things James Randi is known for. He'll take a "fatal" dose of homeopathic sleeping pills during talks (e.g. his TED talk) as a way of showing they don't work.

comment by Basil Marte · 2018-06-12T23:23:17.527Z · score: 5 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The belief that overdosing on sleeping pills is fatal comes from barbiturate medications, while modern pills contain benzodiazepines such as diazepam. Modern sleeping pills are pretty easy to get exactly because even if someone downs the whole bottle, they don't die, only go to deep unconsciousness, i.e. "knockout sleep" (physical stimuli, such as shaking the patient, don't wake them up) that possibly lasts several days. Thus if James Randi took a fatal-by-barbiturate-standards dose of benzodiazepine sleeping pills, then (after he woke up) he would conclude that the pills didn't work because he didn't die.

This is not to say that benzodiazepine pills are completely safe. (This is to be expected from anything that messes with the central nervous system and basic regulation.) Of most practical relevance is the crossreaction with alcohol; combining drunkenness with benzodiazepine overdose is very much fatal. Unfortunately, mild alcohol consumption plus a standard dose can fairly reliably trigger "knockout sleep", making the combination an easily-used party/rape drug. (If this is a floating belief, keep it as such; a.k.a. do not try this at home.)

comment by Yosarian2 · 2014-01-21T00:49:57.421Z · score: 10 (8 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

One thing that makes Christianity such a powerful meme is that it has specifically developed defenses that seem designed to counter this kind of argument. They're actually written right into the Bible.

Matthew 4:7-

" 5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. 6 “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:

“‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’[c]”

7 Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’[d]”"

Basically, the exact kind of test you're talking about, an attempt to falsify the hypothesis that God exists and will protect you, is something that you are explicitly forbidden from trying to do in the Bible. Even the act of suggesting it as a course of action is associated with the Devil.

The fact that Christianity has such well-developed internal defenses against being challenged is one reason it's been such an effective meme. Also, perhaps more interesting, I would say that the fact that it was felt that they needed to do so proves that even at the time the Bible was written there were rationalists (or at least proto-rationalists) challenging religion on rational grounds, and the early religious leaders felt the need to counter those kinds of arguments.

comment by Viliam_Bur · 2013-03-15T09:40:24.944Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Is this solely a religious phenomenon

No. People can "believe" in non-religious things and yet refuse to make bets which should be 100% safe if their belief is true. Sometimes they don't realize that the specific bet is related to the abstract belief; but often there are separate magisteria of belief-space and everyday-action-space.

How many believers in democracy would let their own life be decided by a majority vote of other people? How many believers in communism would share all their property with someone poorer than them?

comment by TimS · 2013-03-21T01:01:08.877Z · score: 10 (11 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

How many believers in democracy would let their own life be decided by a majority vote of other people?

That seems like a strawman. Most western democracies have substantial antimajoritarian components to their basic laws. Procedurally, most countries have judicial review of legislative acts. Substantive examples (from the United States) include the First Amendment (freedom of speech) and the Fourth Amendment (protection against unreasonable searches and seizures).

In other words, proponents of democratic government don't intend to communicate that they want every decision made by the majority of the citizens.

comment by orthonormal · 2020-08-05T18:23:47.514Z · score: 5 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Gah, not to persist with the Simulacra discussion, but most religious people (and most people, most of the time, on most topics) are on Simulacra Level 3 [LW · GW]: beliefs are membership badges. Wingnuts, conspiracy theorists, and rationalists are out on Level 1, taking beliefs at face value.

I'm now thinking the woman mentioned here is on Level 4: she no longer really cares that she's admitting things that her tribe wouldn't say, she's declaring that she's one of them despite clearly being cynical about the tribal signs.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-02-14T19:30:20.385Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Link is dead. Would very much like to see web-comic. :)

comment by Scott Alexander (Yvain) · 2012-02-14T21:22:58.405Z · score: 18 (18 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

comment by [deleted] · 2012-02-14T22:38:17.656Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)


comment by jimmy · 2009-03-05T21:34:25.891Z · score: 17 (19 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's worth mentioning that one can actually believe in god yet only say "I believe in god".

When I talk to religious people, I usually say "I don't believe in god" rather than "God does not exist". They both get the point across that I'm an atheist, but nothing else. The second, however, is less confrontational, and it often takes effort to keep people from seeing the discussion as a "battle".

comment by Raw_Power · 2010-10-12T16:48:12.693Z · score: 15 (15 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

One goes through life thinking one's mistakes are unique to one, only to discover that they are much more common. Yet, I thought I was the only Muslim to force himself to belief like that. But I find that all of the Muslims I know, save perhaps one exception, follow this same pattern. And when I said: "I believe I will go to hell if I don't believe in God, but I can't bring myself into believing in God" they used to tell me "Do your five prayers, read then Qran, if you strive to get closer to God, God will get closer to you." Needless to say, whenever I did that, it backfired: I only got more scared of hell (anyone here who has read the Qran will agree with me that the threats are very vivid) but less believing in God, because it just didn't make sense that God be as he said he was and there be a Hell built after Judgement Day. Among other things.

I wonder if anyone ever fully analysed the Qran and all the resources it uses to tug at the feelings of the reader? I've started seeing some patters since I started reading this site, but I'd like to know if there is a full-blown, complete, exhaustive deconstruction of that book, that is not dripped in islamophobia, ethnocentrism, and other common failures I have seen in Western theologians when applied to Islam.

comment by JamesAndrix · 2009-03-05T06:45:57.500Z · score: 15 (17 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I may not be too far from this. I started to be an atheist but (as best as I can describe) found myself believing in god anyway. I interpreted it as catholicism having etched a god shaped hole into my brain. It seemed like more trouble than it was worth to fight it. In this context 'I believe in god' isn't a conclusion but an observation.

Knowing that your brain hasn't updated correctly does not make it trivial to force it to.

By my current theology, my Gods are rather a lot like the dragon in my garage which is invisible, can't be touched, and leaves no thermal signature. For example, I may be wired to believe in divinity, but I am apparently not wired to believe in a creator (Thanks PBS!) so in my thinking on cosmology, physics, or evolution, my theology just doesn't come up. This is at least partly by design.

comment by nwthomas · 2011-06-30T06:33:07.101Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I can relate to this. I had a crisis of faith about a month ago (thanks LessWrong!), and while I've "officially" stopped believing "those things," they still sometimes show up in my thinking. I am, as it were, in the midst of a complex re-architecting process. Particularly hard to eliminate are those beliefs which actually serve a functional purpose in my life. For instance, the beliefs that give me emotional support, and the beliefs that I use to decide my actions, are very hard to deal with. In these cases I need to figure out how to build a new structure which serves the same function, or figure out how to live without that function. This has required a significant amount of creativity and deep thinking.

comment by Daniel · 2009-03-06T05:03:41.601Z · score: 12 (12 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Georges Ray has defended a position he calls "Meta-Atheism." He believes that just about nobody who says they believe in God actually does, for reasons somewhat like the ones Eliezer mentions. I highly recommend checking it out. Here's a link:

comment by orthonormal · 2020-08-05T18:16:58.371Z · score: 9 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I can't help but think of Simulacra Levels [LW · GW]. She Wants To Be A Theist (aspiring to Level 3), but this is different from Actually Being A Theist (Level 3), let alone Actually Thinking That God Exists (Level 1). She's on Level 4, where she talks the way nobody on Level 3 would talk - Level 3's assert they are Level 1's; Level 4's assert they are Level 3's.

comment by RobinHanson · 2009-03-05T02:56:23.154Z · score: 8 (10 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

What is the evidence that "she does not receive any benefit of believing in God"? I would expect that with her attitude she would be accepted and included into religious communities.

comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2009-03-05T03:47:05.792Z · score: 23 (23 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

That's not a benefit of believing in God. You don't have to believe in God to be accepted into religious communities. You just have to say "I believe in God".

It may help to genuinely believe you believe in God. But in the Modern Orthodox Jewish community that I remember from Chicago, someone who actually seriously believed in God and acted accordingly, who was over the age of 20, would probably get looked at a little funny - they wouldn't get the warm friendship that accrues to those who just say the passwords.

A "benefit" of actually believing in God would be, say, that you weren't too sad at funerals because you genuinely believed the deceased was in Heaven. Pretty sure no one at the family funerals I attended went that far.

comment by Scott Alexander (Yvain) · 2009-03-05T18:21:13.231Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Doesn't she receive a benefit by not having to live a lie her whole life? I've read deconversion stories, and they almost always include a point where someone has lost faith but tries to stay in their religious communities and go through the motions. Most of them end up miserable (granted that there is a 100% selection bias because these are deconversion stories)

comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2009-03-05T18:58:59.468Z · score: 4 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Well, yes, there is a 100% selection bias here. I'm not sure I can count that as evidence, like, at all.

comment by Scott Alexander (Yvain) · 2009-03-06T09:52:19.097Z · score: 10 (10 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The intention was to provide a clarifying example of an existential statement that should be non-controversial ("There exist some people who are uncomfortable living a lie"), not to assert probabilistic evidence for a universal statement ("Everyone I have read about is uncomfortable living a lie, therefore this is true of all humans"). I noted the selection bias only to clarify that I am not making the stronger universal statement, but it doesn't interfere with the existential statement.

comment by Nick_Tarleton · 2009-03-05T19:01:59.419Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

In human terms, or ideal Bayesian terms?

comment by steven0461 · 2009-03-05T07:59:25.206Z · score: 0 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Wait, couldn't people have been programmed by evolution to grieve no matter what they truly believe about where the deceased went?

comment by less_schlong · 2009-03-05T08:36:25.521Z · score: 8 (12 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If you knew that everyone got uploaded to a virtual world when they died, and the virtual world was better in every way than the natural world, and when you died you would be reunited with them in the virtual world, then would you really have something to grieve about when their soul passed out of their body?

comment by Baughn · 2009-03-05T10:30:19.425Z · score: 10 (12 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes; you would be unable to talk to them for.. however long it'd take before you could join them.

Of course the rational solution then would be suicide or, failing that, good, ethical actions that certainly would get you into heaven but just happen to be incredibly dangerous. I'm sure we could find some.

comment by Neoryder · 2009-03-06T10:44:46.329Z · score: 0 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

You don't grieve because of what you said. You grieve because you miss them and you don't know when you will see them. I know it is selfish but its true. I attended a funeral once where the son of the deceased was a friend and "We are sad not because we would no longer see him, but because we do not know when.", Of course he maybe lying but sometimes we can take these people's statements at face value. Some people are short sighted, they are saddened inspite of their belief that they would be reunited and what they term the other side/life would be a far far better place. They are saddened because their lives have to change , maybe not for the better.

comment by Benya (Benja) · 2009-03-06T11:17:44.882Z · score: 7 (9 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

This seems like an empirical proposition. Does anybody here know what cryonics believers say who've seen friends or loved ones frozen?

comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2009-06-25T19:56:47.302Z · score: 16 (15 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

An interesting point. Keeping in mind that cryonics "believers" trust cryonics with varying degrees of probability and that many or even most of them try to appear more rational to their skeptical friends by saying "The probability is only 20% but that still makes it a good bet based on expected utility", then I'd say that I've seen both behaviors. That is, I've seen some cryonicists expressing grief, some cryonicists (including myself) saying "See you later", and my untrustworthy eyeballs indicate that this correlates to how much trust they have in cryonics.

Eyeballs also indicate that someone who's more deeply involved in the cryonics community per se is less likely to mourn, regardless of what they say about their verbal probabilities. And furthermore, when someone is suspended who themselves believed strongly in cryonics, "weak" cryonics advocates are less likely to mourn that person! This may have something to do with the degree to which mourning is empathy...? Or do they, perhaps, believe just strongly enough to worry that the one will come back and be annoyed at the "condolences"?

Are weakly religious people less likely to mourn the death of strongly religious people? I'm guessing "Yes" - and it'd be easier to gather data here.

comment by Vladimir_Nesov · 2009-06-25T20:16:30.779Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sounds like priming: since the deceased is associated with not mourning cryonically suspended, the attitude towards this issue changes in the context. I expect that the verbal probabilities, if not premeditated, will also change, if the question is framed like "what is the probability that [this person] will be restored?", depending on the belief of [this person] in the success.

comment by Lotska · 2013-05-22T09:49:27.958Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm sure it's possible to believe in God but deceive oneself into belief of atheism. And then grieve shallowly with a feeling that the deceased is not really gone forever.

comment by shminux · 2013-05-22T15:07:20.213Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Also known as "there are no atheists in foxholes".

comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2013-05-22T14:09:04.787Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

That sounds theoretically possible but I haven't seen it.

comment by wizzwizz4 · 2020-03-15T23:27:08.794Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I was, for a period of a few months, in this category. And I've still sort of got something attached to that mental state, if I think about it hard enough.

comment by [deleted] · 2013-05-22T14:31:08.942Z · score: 0 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Really? I would expect you of all people to see it.

Most atheists alieve in God and trust him to make the future turn out all right (ie they expect the future to magically be ok even if no one deliberately makes it so). Hence "beyond the reach of god" and all that stuff.

I guess this is offtopic in this particular thread, though.

comment by DSimon · 2013-05-22T18:43:35.741Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Most atheists alieve in God and trust him to make the future turn out all right (ie they expect the future to magically be ok even if no one deliberately makes it so).

The statement in parentheses seems to contradict the one outside. Are you over-applying the correlation between magical thinking and theism?

comment by Vaniver · 2013-05-22T18:56:49.708Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The statement in parentheses seems to contradict the one outside.

The implication is "no one human"- that is, the atheists in question still live in a positive universe rather than a neutral one, but don't have an explanation for the positivity.

comment by hairyfigment · 2013-05-22T23:12:46.430Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

People alieve that nothing too bad will happen if they behave well or otherwise follow some set of rules. (I have to fight this feeling myself!) I can well imagine people having a mental picture, which they habitually use to make predictions, in which something justifies this feeling. But do they picture a deity as commonly described? Or do they picture their parents/society/church having (limited) magical powers?

comment by redlizard · 2013-05-22T15:51:03.279Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I highly doubt that that expectation is due to hidden belief in gods. It sounds more like an overly strong generalization from "it all adds up to normality" to me.

In other words, you can expect the future to turn out alright without any agents actively making it so based purely on inductive bias.

comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2013-05-22T15:20:54.002Z · score: 0 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I've seen that for planets a lot more than for people, yes.

comment by pwno · 2009-03-05T03:27:28.836Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think EY just means that she doesn't get the benefit from truly believing in God, but another, possibly similar, benefit one gets by deceiving oneself into believing in God.

comment by JoshuaFox · 2009-03-05T07:13:26.724Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Persian legend about the Babylonian gods Marduk and Ishtar, and the rival Elamite gods Humman and Vashti

Although this does not speak directly to the heart of your argument, the Elamite etymologies you provide are almost certainly incorrect, and seems that the reference to the legend is even weaker.

Here is a good discussion of the point, with references.

Mordechai and Esther are of course theophoric, but theophoric names, including those named after the gods of the dominant culture but given by non-believers in the respective gods, are common in many cultures, ours included.

comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2009-03-05T08:06:32.327Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Well - for a start, I actually got the story off her, then looked it up online to confirm; before then I was unaware of the etymology of Purim.

It's not clear to me how you could plausibly carry the theory that Haman, in the story, is a personal name, given that Haman and Vashti were paired male and female gods at least according to other sources (the name Vashti is mentioned in your cited book, but it's not clear in what connection). Haman is a coincidence but Vashti isn't? Either I'm missing something, or I must suspect the motives of your book's author; that is always a hazard in this sort of thing. (Of course, so is the converse hazard of going eager-beaver on a good atheistic strike - but obviously Mordecai and Esther are Marduk and Ishtar, so it certainly wouldn't be surprising if Haman and Vashti are rival gods; according to her, Vashti isn't even a very Persian name.)

comment by JoshuaFox · 2009-03-06T13:27:56.848Z · score: 8 (10 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Of course, the validity of the point about "Haman" is not relevant to your core argument.

When I said "good discussion" in my comment, I was trying to say that using my best judgment, honed in a PhD in a closely related field, and examining the argument and the affiliations of the authors, it seems like an unbiased discussion. Good scholarship is of course neither "pro" nor "anti" Bible.

The apparent phonetic resemblances between Haman and an Elamite god are linguistically far-fetched. There is absolutely no connection between a h and a kh (written also h-with-hook-underneath). It is always easy to find coincidences if you are willing to stretch resemblances far enough. Even Jensen admits that Vashti (perhaps pronounced Washti) is unattested and that he is is emending from Mashti.

Also, note that Haman and Vashti are in no way paired in the Biblical story, and Marduk and Ishtar were not a divine couple.

After the first modern Bible scholars tried (with religious motives) to understand the Bible in its historical context, and found that much of it was non-historical and that there were connections to other Near Eastern cultures, some went overboard in their enthusiasm to "debunk" the Bible. I suspect that Jensen in 1892 was motivated by this rather than atheism.

Velikovsky is a more familiar example of this phenomenon. He was motivated by a desire to scientifically describe incidents in the Bible, but went overboard into pseudo-science.

Mordecai and Esther are simply common names coming from Marduk and Ishtar (like Maria and Jesus today).

By the way, this book about Esther has a chapter on its historicity, bringing arguments for and against, and definitely concludes against.

In writing this, I feel like I am acting out this webcomic, but hey, at least the PhD is good for something.

comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2009-03-08T01:39:17.090Z · score: 4 (8 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I accept your verdict.

comment by kurige · 2009-03-05T06:14:37.489Z · score: 7 (17 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

This I can understand.

I am a protestant Christian and your friend's experience with "belief" are similar to mine. Or seem to be, from what I gather in your post.

One thing I've come to realize that helps to explain the disparity I feel when I talk with most other Christians is the fact that somewhere along the way my world-view took a major shift away from blind faith and landed somewhere in the vicinity of Orwellian double-think.

The double-think comes into play when you're faced with non-axiomatic concepts such as morality. I believe that there is a God - and that He has instilled a sense of right and wrong in us by which we are able to evaluate the world around us. I also believe a sense of morality has been evolutionarily programmed into us - a sense of morality that is most likely a result of the formation of meta-political coalitions in Bonobo communities a very, very long time ago.

These two beliefs are not contradictory, but the complexity lies in reconciling the two. This post is not about the details of my Escher-esque brain, so suffice to say there are questions unanswered by viewing only the scientific side and there are just as many unanswered if viewed only from the spiritual side.

Simply because your friend is not blind to contradictions in the Orthodox Jewish belief system does not mean she does not sincerely believe - or that she's deceived herself into believing that she believes. It means that she, as all intelligent believers who practice crisis of faith should, understands just how much she doesn't understand.

comment by Estarlio · 2013-07-14T13:03:26.820Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

suffice to say there are questions unanswered by viewing only the scientific side

Do you have a list?

comment by AnnaSalamon · 2009-03-05T06:59:05.717Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Meta-comment: I up-voted this comment and James Andrix's comment because they're good data, I'm glad they shared it, and it looks like stuff more eyes should look at within the thread. But I wish "up-voting" didn't give the appearance of agreement.

(I'm hoping practical discussion of what to do with votes is okay to keep in relevant threads, in the early stages of LW's community formation?)

comment by Dojan · 2013-07-14T11:43:07.123Z · score: 0 (10 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Up-voted for honesty.

comment by less_schlong · 2009-03-05T07:59:20.129Z · score: -5 (19 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

You said it yourself, you are double-thinking: both a smart thought and a stupid one. Bonobos are around today but they weren't in the past, because humans have a common ancestor with them—i.e. Bonobos are irrelevant. Speaking of irrelevant, believing that we have evolved moral tendencies has nothing to do with your beliefs of god’s absolute morality.

Let me ask you a question about your God. Is it the simplest explanation of all the evidence? No, right? OK, then maybe you should believe something else i.e. naturalism. Because there is something called Occam's Razor that basically says that, and if you haven't heard about it then read it ASAP. I hope you understand how ridiculous it is to try to have an intellectual discussion when you think Santa Claus (i.e. God) is constantly talking to you like you have a cell phone. Even my kid can see that that's a stupid thing to believe but you seem like a smart guy so how about join us in the twenty first century?

comment by Jack · 2009-03-05T10:06:31.812Z · score: 4 (8 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Occam's Razor is a heuristic... and one I proceed according to- but its not at all clear just what its justification is. Why exactly ought we to believe the simpler hypothesis?

comment by Scott Alexander (Yvain) · 2009-03-05T12:17:49.619Z · score: 17 (17 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The best justification I've heard for believing simple hypotheses is an argument from probability.

Consider some event caused by a certain block. We know the block's color must be either red, yellow, blue, or green; its shape must be either square, round, or triangular; its material must be either wood or metal.

We come up with two theories about the event. Both theories explain the event adequately:

The event was caused by the block being made of wood. The event was caused by the block being blue, and triangular, and and made of metal. Before the event happens, there are twenty four different possibile configurations of the block. "Made of wood" is true of twelve configurations, "blue, triangular, and made of metal" is true of one configuration.

After the event, we dismiss all configurations except these thirteen under which we believe the event was possible. We assume all of these thirteen are equally likely. Therefore, there's a 12/13 chance that the block is made of wood and a 1/13 chance the block is blue, triangular, and made of metal.

Therefore, Theory 1 is twelve times more likely than Theory 2.

The same principle is at work any time you have a simple theory competing with a more complex theory. Because the complicated theory has more preconditions that have to be just right, it has a lower prior probability relative to the simple theory, and since the occurence of the event adjusts the probabilities of both theories equally, it has a lower posterior probability.

I know I read this explanation first on a discussion of Kolmogorov complexity on someone's rationality blog, but I can't remember who's or what the link was. If I stole your explanation, please step up and take credit.

comment by Vladimir_Nesov · 2009-03-05T13:42:05.398Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It also helps to keep in mind that the state space with associated probability distribution is something you dress the actual state of reality in. The model helps to keep track of the structure of the data you have about the actual state of reality, that hides in one tiny point of state space. Probabilities of areas of state space (events/hypotheses) quantitatively express the relation between those aspects of the model and reality it's about.

comment by Johnicholas · 2009-03-05T11:36:01.141Z · score: 8 (10 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

You move from simpler hypotheses to more complex hypotheses for the same reason that you count from small numbers to big numbers.

Try imagining what counting the natural numbers "in the opposite order" would look like.

Of course, you can have large wiggles. For example, you might alternate jumping up to the next power of two and counting backwards. But using different representations for hypotheses leads to the same sort of wiggles in Occam's Razor.

comment by Scott Alexander (Yvain) · 2009-03-05T12:17:13.261Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The best justification I've heard for believing simple hypotheses is an argument from probability.

Consider some event caused by a certain block. We know the block's color must be either red, yellow, blue, or green; its shape must be either square, round, or triangular; its material must be either wood or metal.

We come up with two theories about the event. Both theories explain the event adequately:

  1. The event was caused by the block being made of wood.
  2. The event was caused by the block being blue, and triangular, and and made of metal.

Before the event happens, there are twenty four different possibile configurations of the block. "Made of wood" is true of twelve configurations, "blue, triangular, and made of metal" is true of one configuration.

After the event, we dismiss all configurations except these thirteen under which we believe the event was possible. We assume all of these thirteen are equally likely. Therefore, there's a 12/13 chance that the block is made of wood and a 1/13 chance the block is blue, triangular, and made of metal.

Therefore, Theory 1 is twelve times more likely than Theory 2.

The same principle is at work any time you have a simple theory competing with a more complex theory. Because the complicated theory has more preconditions that have to be just right, it has a lower prior probability relative to the simple theory, and since the occurence of the event adjusts the probabilities of both theories equally, it has a lower posterior probability.

I know I read this explanation first on a discussion of Kolmogorov complexity on someone's rationality blog, but I can't remember who's or what the link was. If I stole your explanation, please step up and take credit.

comment by Yasser_Elassal · 2009-03-05T18:12:34.589Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

For simplicity, Occam's razor is often cited as "choose the simplest hypothesis" even when it's more appropriate to employ its original definition as the principle that one should favor the explanation that requires the fewest assumptions.

I agree that less_schlong shouldn't be citing Occam's razor as some fundamental law of the universe, but I do think it's obvious that all things being equal, we should attempt to minimize speculative assumptions.

comment by kurige · 2009-03-06T06:35:18.619Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I just looked it up, and it looks like you were correct about the Bonobos. Should have said "Pan Prior".

comment by buybuydandavis · 2011-10-29T10:23:43.823Z · score: 5 (11 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

This is of a piece with the Doublethink article. I think you just don't get it, as too many atheists don't.

This seems a case of someone concluding consciously and subconsciously that believing in God had greater instrumental rationality - more winning - than not believing in God. The supposed mystery of her stress on her belief in God, rather than his existence, is easily explained by this. Her belief pays the freight, not God.

To be clear, I'm an atheist. But it's clear that belief in God does have instrumental benefits for lots of people. If your goal is winning, and not just accurate prediction, it could be perfectly instrumentally rational to believe in God.

I remember having a similar discussion with a friend in college. She "decided she would have a better life" if she believed in God. Being an atheist and epistemic rationalist at the time, I was appalled. How peculiar and unfathomable it was. What gibberish. She's wasn't saying it was true, just that believing it would give her a better life.

Well, turns out she had a greater appreciation for instrumental rationality than I had, though I doubt it was particularly conscious on her part. My appreciation for that kind of instrumental rationality is now conscious. I haven't quite made the leap yet, and don't know that I will, but dismissing it as irrational is just incorrect.

comment by TuviaDulin · 2012-04-03T07:18:51.248Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I've thought about this as well. Its basically the same question as "If I had the option of living in a virtual reality fantasy world without ever knowing that the real world existed, and I would be happier in the VR world, would I rather live there?" Is increased happiness worth the cost of self-deception?

I've tried to do what you describe. It didn't work, and it made me feel cheap, like I wasn't respecting myself. That's just my own subjective experience of course.

comment by buybuydandavis · 2012-04-03T07:50:57.511Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

That's my subjective experience as well. But clearly other people don't operate the same way, to the same extent.

I compare it to the recent empirical work on morality, where they have found a number of different moral modalities by which people determine something good or bad, and further found that people weight those modalities differently. Fairness might have the greatest weight to you, while autonomy might have the greatest to me.

I think a similar thing happens with ideas. They get accepted according to a multimodal valuation. Only one of those modes is predictive power, but that's the mode predominant in rationalist circles, and rationalists get together and wonder how other people can believe tripe. Well, because the tripe fulfills some other valuation that we don't feel as strongly. Maybe that value is believing what powerful people tell you. Maybe that value is believing what your neighbors believe. Maybe that value is believing what your elders believe. Maybe it's not believing what your elders believe.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2010-02-28T15:40:42.429Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm a little surprised that the lack of evidence for peripheral stories that aren't in the Torah is considered significant, compared to the lack of evidence that Hebrews were ever slaves in Egypt.

comment by [deleted] · 2010-12-08T04:23:56.969Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

That was my trigger. I'm still pissed about that.

comment by infotropism · 2009-03-05T08:06:02.089Z · score: 5 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Rationality is about winning. Sometimes it's a great psychological relief to be able to use belief as a shield or help. I have never had any qualms about using it to counter other irrational beliefs, fears, anguishes. Like for instance, when I was a child, the fear of darkness or monsters below my bed or whatnot.

Telling myself "ok, this isn't real and you know it, so no fear should be necessary" doesn't have quite the same effect as "God will help me chase them away / protect me".

Those are two different ideas, even though we use "belief" for both. I believe in God, gods, fairies, anything and whatever, whenever I find it convenient, just the same way I'll use nootropics when I'll find those convenient, both to the purpose of enhancing my mood or cognition. That is believing, as in, making up a comfortable, warm, fuzzy story, that recovers myself my serenity. Not believe as in "what can help me understand or manipulate the real, physical world, what is real and what will have a causal effect on that external world".

The only wrong consequence I can foresee for such a behavior is to go too far, to really start believing in such things, and hence loose some of your potential for rational reasoning as you'll then have to defend a lie and forgo truth sometimes, or also, feeling the need to elaborate further and further upon the stories, whether you believe them or not, wasting your time upon fantasizing.

Please note here how such stories which were at first understood to be fiction became serious stuff. Science fiction that becomes religion, as in scientism (to end up believing in your own story), or how some people will go to ludicrous lengths to demonstrate how star wars is still physically "not impossible" (to waste your time embellishing your fantasy and rationalizing it).

comment by jimrandomh · 2009-03-05T02:06:51.525Z · score: 4 (12 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Many people cannot distinguish between levels of indirection. To them, "I believe X" and "X" are the same thing, and therefore, reasons why it is beneficial to believe X are also reasons why X is true. I think this, rather than any sort of deliberate self deception, is what you have observed.

comment by Liron · 2009-03-05T02:32:17.632Z · score: 1 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I expect it is an easy distinction for most people whom Eliezer describes as "highly intelligent".

comment by MichaelHoward · 2009-03-05T13:44:54.788Z · score: 4 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If it's a distinction they'd rather not think about, I wouldn't bet on it. If you don't put some work into preventing it, more intelligence can just mean cleverer defences for your irrational beliefs.

comment by pwno · 2009-03-06T04:13:21.004Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

How can more intelligence lead to be more likely to defend your irrational beliefs?

comment by Vladimir_Nesov · 2009-03-06T14:52:32.027Z · score: 10 (12 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

How can more intelligence lead to be more likely to defend your irrational beliefs?

See Positive Bias: Look Into the Dark and Knowing About Biases Can Hurt People.

comment by Ali · 2009-03-05T08:30:50.250Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It depends on how seriously they took the conversation.

I completely agree with Jim, the difference between, "I believe God exist" and "God exist" is a debate in itself

I also think that Eliezer should have brought up this point to her attention to really get the response she "believes in"

For many people saying "I believe God exists" is a stronger proposition than "I know God exist"

comment by David_Gerard · 2011-01-19T10:42:20.634Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

This sounds very like she enjoys the feeling of doublethink. Applying aesthetics to one's own feelings. I suspect this is behind New Age as a grab-bag people tend to give credence to all of, or crank magnetism - people assess beliefs by how it feels to profess them.

Whether this is "real" belief depends then on what you call "belief". It's a real something, I think, and "belief" is not an invalid word for them to use for it, but we might benefit from separate ones for "I like this belief" (which I mean in a sense stronger than "I think I should believe") and "this belief pays off in expected experiences." It may be covered by "belief in belief", but I have a nagging feeling that it's a bit stronger.

comment by botogol · 2009-03-05T17:48:28.322Z · score: 3 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I like this article (but then I liked Dennet's ideas of belief in belief right from the start) and I've been thinking about this off and on all day.

But I think perhaps Eliezer over-analyses: On the surface this person's beliefs and thoughts seem fuzzy, so Eliezer admiraly digs deeper - but perhaps it's just fuzz all the way down.

Perhaps she believes P and ~P, perhaps she believes P>Q and she believes P but she beleives ~Q.

Perhaps you just have to shrug, and move on.

My experience is that most religious people give very, very, very little thought to what they actually believe. (About 10,000th of the introspection that Eliezer performs, say :-) ) and analysing it terms of doctrine, beliefs (or indeed impressions) is simply using the wrong tools. Perhaps better to think about emotions invovled in 'being religious' and being 'part of' a religion.

comment by thomblake · 2009-03-05T22:29:56.250Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

But for an academic actually doing that analysis (not that I'm necessarily calling EY an 'academic'), one must invoke the principle of charity, which necessitates assuming she's saying things that are reasonable, justified, and truthful, as far as you can push it.

Argue against the belief, not the person - if you can wrestle out some truth from what someone's saying, count that as a win even if they oppose you.

comment by Paul Crowley (ciphergoth) · 2009-03-05T21:54:09.874Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

What you say doesn't account for the curious absence of any direct affirmation of her belief - it's weird that she's always at one remove from her own belief.

comment by onigame · 2015-01-26T23:06:33.623Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Is it possible that this person was deliberately avoiding such statements of declaration?

I imagine myself, hypothetically, discussing physics with an opponent who only believes in Aristotelian mechanics. I'm not going to come right out and declare "Objects at rest stay at rest". Instead, I'm going to say "I believe that objects at rest stay at rest", going under a mock hypothetical that perhaps my belief is an opinion and not a fact, and then slowly try to win my opponent over. Making guarded declarations instead of absolute declarations is a common tactic of persuasion. (I almost typed "appears to be a common tactic of persuasion" in the last sentence, which shows how strong this tactic is.)

Given that, I find it possible that the person actually did believe that God exists, but felt that saying "Oh, and by the way, God actually does exist" would have been unproductive. She could have been trying to construct an argument that goes somewhat like this:

(1) I believe that God exists. (2) I am an intelligent person, therefore my beliefs are true. (3) Therefore, God exists.

Perhaps it was clear to her that you didn't believe (3), but she was holding out hope that she might convince you of (1) and (2), which would then force you to believe (3). If that is her line of attack, it would do her no good to declare (3), as it would more likely alienate you and make it harder for her to persuade you to believe (1) and (2).

comment by christopherj · 2013-10-11T03:16:39.980Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Faith is a major component of Christianity. For example, Jesus says to Thomas“Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” So Thomas, who knows Jesus is resurrected because he has seen and felt him, is less blessed than those who simply believe (but don't know). Likewise, though God could easily get a bunch of converts by showing Himself, doing that would lose the faith aspect.

Don't go being smart and saying that you by definition have faith in things you know -- Christians don't mean this definition of faith, nor is it necessarily true. You can also set up certain experiments you personally know by the laws of physics won't hurt you, yet if you measure your fight or flight response will realize that you "believe" they are dangerous despite knowing they are not. Or compare how you feel about roller coasters compared to other activities you know to be of comparable likelihood of injury.

Another thing is that it is the dogma of many Christian denominations, that faith is a prerequisite (for some the only prerequisite) to salvation. Thus I claim that for Christians, faith is a more praiseworthy trait than knowledge of the same thing as a fact. A Christian who says that they know God exists, is signalling a very strong faith and most definitely not that they don't need faith because they have factual knowledge.

Now although Christian, Jew, and Muslim all claim to follow the same God of Abraham, I can't say for sure how this applies to your Jewish friend. The Torah also has "thou shalt not put God to the test", and various bits praising faith, plus they also need something that predicts that God doesn't go show Himself to the world population. Anyone here know whether for Jews it is better to believe in God than to know God exists?

comment by helicase · 2014-10-06T03:28:46.014Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Your entire post is basically redefining words. You specify that Christian "faith" is really "faith in things that cannot be proven". A Christian who "knows" is really "one who feels extremely confident". And "belief" is now "fight or flight response". These aren't the concepts the original post is about.

comment by rhollerith · 2009-03-06T16:53:01.716Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

My curiosity is drawn to the nature of the benefits the woman expects. Does she get a high from the false belief or does her mental model inform her that the false belief will favorably affect external reality -- e.g., she will have friends more likely to behave charitably towards her than atheist friends will be?

A very intelligent conservative Christian once gave me the latter as a primary reason she become a Christian. OTOH, Garcia thought that the former was usually the motive in the population he interacted (which was very different from the population at large though).

comment by Unknowns · 2014-11-07T01:56:07.465Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If all of her friends believe in God, she may very possibly be correct that her friends will be more friendly with her if she believes in God rather than not believing, and especially if she believes in God rather than going from believing in God to not believing in God.

And finding an entirely new set of friends would be a rather high cost for some people as well.