A Test of Faith

by Serpent-Stare 7 min read6th Apr 20182 comments


A personal, experiential response to: Avoiding Your Belief's Real Weak Points, by Eleizer Yudkowsky.

I wrote the following article in order to help me express and process and eventually publish my thoughts, while setting myself to accept the challenge posed in Eleizer's post, which I had just reached in the official podcast of Rationality: AI to Zombies:

To do better: When you’re doubting one of your most cherished beliefs, close your eyes, empty your mind, grit your teeth, and deliberately think about whatever hurts the most.

Wishing to become stronger, I tried to ask the unasked question. Find a reason that, even if I do not generally acknowledge it as a reason of my own, might be a potential reason for someone to hold onto a belief that I had been holding onto. A reason other than ranking it as the most likely thing to be true. I looked for what scary thing might be hiding behind it, that having a comfortable and habitual answer might be saving me from having to look at directly.

And... I think I found it.

This experience took place nine days ago. I began writing this record identifying myself as still holding the beliefs to be challenged, and ended it feeling that that may no longer be the case. Looking back, and looking at the way I have felt and thought since then, I think I did succeed in dislodging my habitual way of looking at the world somewhat from its privileged position. The cognitive habits are still there, but I'm taking notice as I fall into them, and marking them as something to counter-balance against. Giving them penalties for arising from a process I acknowledge to have particular and known flaws.

Naturally, this is a very emotional, very personal, and potentially very challenging post. It may qualify as an infohazard. You could, depending on your current set of beliefs and how entrenched they are, be hurt by the consequences of following me through to the other side of the fire. Just wanted to give you fair warning, and a chance to stop reading now. With that out of the way... Let the journey begin.

I wish to test myself by the standards set here, as I understand them, in a public confessional. Others with an outside perspective of my beliefs may judge me, and their judgements may show me that there are things they see that I have ignored without meaning to.

I am agnostic now about beliefs I used to hold with more confidence, about psychic phenomena, suggestive magic. I was/maybe-am somewhat mystic and animist, believing essentially in subtle spirits that develop in some places and objects, in moments of spiritually 'guided' insight that turn out to be apt. Experiences of bizarre and apparently unsupported certainty that bore fruit; of ghostly sights and lightning striking in the right place, at the right time, in the right shape; and moments of disjointed and distant feelings and thoughts that found a source of confirmation and context in the contemporaneous experiences of others who were dear to me... These are my miracles and my proofs, the experiences that support those beliefs. But remembering the feeling of those experiences, awesome though they were in the classic meaning of the word, is only a recital of old evidence. I can see that.

Where is the weakness? What might I be avoiding looking at, when I cling to mysticism and animism? If they are an illusion of fallacies, what pain does this illusion shield me from? Where does the idea of letting mysticism/animism be untrue hurt? The test is to look there... right?

Then... I ask myself, do I think I could bear it if the truth were that some of the most profound and self-affirming experiences of my youth were based on... chance, happenstance, luck; and perfectly mortal and explicable observation, deduction and common sense on my part (to the extent that moments of "inspired" insight were, in fact, insightful)? Could I viscerally imagine that all my psychic moments were either decent cold reading or luck, and remain standing?

...Yes. I... think so. It draws tears from my eyes, but mostly of pity for my former self's tremendous lonesomeness, for that person was indeed desperate to believe that something, anything, even if it wasn't a person, was noticing them and paying attention to their feelings. That their feelings meant something to someone else, anyone else, even if that other person never knew the connection, and it only existed because they were that other person's feelings, picked up empathetically like a distant, barely coherent radio signal, not my former self's own.

Today, I have friends I can talk to about anything, people who will stare into the darkness of my own painful experiences with me, and flinch, but keep looking. Who will cry with me. Who notice, and who care. I am no longer alone the way I once was. If the truth is that spirits acknowledging or communicating to me was an illusion I formed out of desperation, I think it is an illusion I could relinquish. It would hurt, for there was and still is beauty, poetry, in those stories. But I do think I could take the hit, and remain standing.

Then, I search again. I ask myself, could I bear it if the truth were that people... and animals too... suffer and die; live lives of unendurable hardship, and fail to endure them, and die; or are hobbled in ways that never heal... and the world simply does not care. The molten core of the earth does not empathize. The stones of old buildings do not capture and reflect ghosts when people die pointlessly and traumatically. The handicrafts of artisans working miserably in conditions which are slavery in all but name are indistinguishable from the output of those with similar skill who work for love of their craft, no matter how quietly and empathetically a sensitive young mystic might entice the object to relate its history with an attached sense of pride or of sadness. Could I bear to believe that when no human or animal knows to weep for the loss of joy, of freedom, of life, those experiences, in their personal, specific contexts, really do go starkly unmourned? Can I stand in a world where the tender personal stories of peoples' lives are lost, erased and burned to less than ashes, without ever being read, and can never be recovered?

... I am less sure of that. But, I... think so. I can viscerally imagine myself standing in such a world. With that picture, something inside of me seems to shrivel and crumble further toward dust, that had aleady become dry and old and weak, like a leaf once brightly coloured. It is a steel-edged picture, and my self in that picture stands with a steel-edged heart, just a little colder. Just a little, for I already know the world is cruel. But perhaps I had hoped that in those times when I felt suddenly more introspective and more sorrowful, and I could think of no other reason why, that it was a little empathetic tingle, a duty to someone who was now suffering; a little vigil, though anonymous and far away and perhaps never realized, in acknowledgement of someone who was now dying.

What then is the result of these contemplations? Where do I stand having challenged the weaknesses I could see in my beliefs (although already tenuous ones)? I feel a bit more moved to take responsibility myself for that suffering that goes unmourned because it is ignored. I feel a bit more of its urgency and intolerability. The voice of the sword of desperation echoes distantly somewhere behind my thoughts.

Well. This seems, upon first assessment, grounds to count my challenge successful. I reach out tentatively to a place where there used to be an attachment to mysticism and animism. I do not feel it, at the moment, and I wonder whether it is already completely gone, or only blocked or drowned out temporarily by the steel and the pain.

If, after this, I find that I wish to take a long walk and call out with my mind for unexpected signs to interpret as answers to a question, to find out whether I discover anything which relates to that question through a chain of bizarre connections...

If I try to find a way to blind and de-bias a test for psychic communication, quietly wishing in my heart of hearts for it to show some confirmation...

If I find I am tempted, sometimes, to toss the fortune-telling sticks, just in case there is something to it... because not needing to believe something does not, in and of itself, make it false...

Because I have a certain spark of something I will call motivated curiosity...

And if I do it...

Will you who read this confessional believe that act to show I have not sufficiently faced the weaknesses of my mystical (former?) beliefs? Will it demonstrate failure?

Tell me what you think, and why, if you would be so kind.

~If I have done well, praise me; If I am yet lost, guide me.~

Addendum: (still part of the report on the same day it was written)

While I was rereading this to correct typing errors and clarify wording, I think I found a place to dig just a little deeper.

With that picture, something inside of me seems to shrivel and crumble further toward dust, that had aleady become dry and old and weak, like a leaf once brightly coloured.


But perhaps I had hoped that in those times when I felt suddenly more introspective and more sorrowful, and I could think of no other reason why, that it was a little empathetic tingle, a duty to someone who was now suffering; a little vigil, though anonymous and far away and perhaps never realized, in acknowledgement of someone who was now dying.

Perhaps I had hoped that, come the worst, someone, someday, somewhere... would do the same honour for me.

...And the brown and withered leaf is consumed by a brief, tiny plume of fire, and dissolves into smoke and ash and the husk of a stem. I think I have found it. The most vulnerable, the most painful thought that sits behind those beliefs, that need not be thought so long as they are in the way. I am afraid to die unmourned. Perhaps, even more than I am simply afraid to die.

Am I strong enough, then, to face that without my paper shield, if paper it were to be? I quail at the thought. I sob at my desk. I already know this pain, I have cried for the fear before. But still, I do not know, and I do not know, and I shake my chains, desperate to flee back to a safer seeming place.

My emotions burn out. I become numb. I feel a faint headache. I feel I have been dumped back into a safer seeming place. I breathe. I tidy my face. Perhaps I will make a point of bringing this up the next time I talk to my counsellor. Perhaps I will make a point of trying again on another day. Perhaps that glimpse into the maelstrom was the answer, and I have found it, and faced it..? Not for the first time. Not for the last. But have I done my duty for the moment, in acknowledging it?

This ends the record I kept of my test of faith nine days ago. I had always intended, from the beginning, to publish it somewhere that it might get a little bit more traffic from the rationalist community than on my personal blog. I knew there is always some risk of having solved something to my satisfaction only because my satisfaction was informed by motivated stopping.

It may have been too raw, just then, to share immediately. The internet can be cruel, and when it is, that doesn't really help me take the valid parts of its feedback on board. Now that it's nine days later, and I've had some time to reflect... I think I already have some answers to the questions I asked of the unknown reader and potential judge. I still want to check and compare them with the answers of other sensible people, if I can get some, but I've done some thinking myself first. That seems important.

I don't know, exactly, what I believe now. To what degree I actually do still think that the eerie moments, the extreme cases in my life, are something more than background noise distorted through a filter of desperation for validation and meaning. What I can say is that I think I ought to make up my mind based on new evidence I start to collect now. My memory of the past is distorted. Hindsight bias prevents me from weighting it usefully. I will still refer to it in order to remember what the 'mystical' hypothesis and point of view was... but not to confirm it.

I don't have the answer. But I have the rules for finding it. So I feel I gained from the experience. Thank you, Eleizer. Again.