Good reminder that reversed stupidity is not intelligence.

Adding to the list: Hans Berger invented the EEG while trying to investigate telepathy, which he was convinced was real. Even fools can make important discoveries.

But increasing one's foolishness does not increase the expected rate of discovery.

The elephant in the room, AMA

by calcsam 2 min read12th May 2011432 comments


Hello fellow Less Wrongians!

Given your comments on my organizing communities series, I get the feeling that many of you are wondering why:

  • a returned Mormon missionary would even come to Less Wrong in the first place.
  • why I find religion plausible at all
  • why I would identify with Mormonism in particular (several people have used the word 'cult')

I'm happy to hold discussions about any of these questions or related ones. However, I haven't responded to many comments on the main series of posts because:

  • they could eat up each thread
  • the threads aren't supposed to be about Mormonism. They're supposed to be about about making a movement work effectively. But being a missionary is where I got my experience.

I wanted to created this thread as a center for questions you might have about my faith. This is not an attempt to preach -- I would be perfectly happy not having a discussion purely about religion at all. But since there seem to be many comments, well, fire away.

Some basic facts: I am a student at Stanford. I am 22. I converted to Mormonism when I was 19. I used to be atheist/agnostic. I am very much a believer, not just in it for the social perks.

Well, as it is written, AMA (= Ask Me Anything)

(Thanks Kevin for the suggestion.)

Edit: Wow, there are a lot of comments. This has been a helpful chance to clarify my thinking. I hope you have learned something useful -- perhaps using the question is 'Is there anything surprising here that he said?'.

Edit 2: Here are some answers to repeated questions. Again, this really helped me distill and clarify myself and I've enjoyed the discussion.

Why do you believe? It's a combination of

  • "wow, this seems to be a really functional community in producing good people." 
  • "wow, these doctrines are really amazing."[1]
  • personal spiritual experiences (experiences-which-I-interpret as spiritual if you prefer) and other positive experiences from doing church things, like emotional growth from going on a mission.

I would estimate that before this all happened, my odds ratio was about 2000:1, and now it's about 1:10. I would ballpark the odds ratios of each of the above 3 events as ~12.5:1, ~25:1, and ~62.5:1. (I was considering likelihood but didn't think in that precise of terms at the time, so any concretization is open to charges of ex post facto. And these are still ballparks.)

There are lots of arguments against Mormonism on factual and historical grounds; there are also counterarguments which I feel pretty much balance them out. (The feeling of balancing each other out was contemporaneous.)

What things could make you consider leaving the faith?

  • Undermining any of the above: negative experiences from doing church things, better arguments against Mormonism, the church repudiating the doctrines I love, experiencing it as much less functional, etc.  

Why do you think your conversion story is disappointing to many of us?

Several possible reasons:

  • You might have been looking for a more rationalist narrative. 
  • Your priors are like (say) 100,000:1 on this. So maybe something I say sounds plausible (1:2). But you're still at 50,000:1 and extremely skeptical.
  • It took a lot of experiences and arguments to persuade me; this is just the tip of the iceberg.
  • A lot of my conversion was experiential. An analogy would be that I ate a certain fruit which others haven't. We are discussing descriptions of the fruit; the only way to be truly convinced (or unconvinced) would be to taste it.  [2]

[1] Specifically:

  • I felt the doctrines were coherent both with my experience of the world -- for example, how faith is introduced as an experiment and described empirically.
  • I felt they offered solutions to central human problems like the feeling of aloneness; the sometimes-destructive yet still necessary nature of guilt.
  • Finally, certain doctrines, like the "weeping God of Mormonism" or deification, struck me with a reaction which I can only describe as "it tasted good." I felt something like, "if there is a God, it just makes sense he would be this.
[2] Difficulty of adequately conveying strong emotional experiences to someone who hasn't had them is general, right? For a parent, try to imagine explaining the feelings you had from holding your infant in your arms the first time. Or someone else, try explaining the strength of arousal feelings to a pre-pubescent who is like "ew, gross." Just because it's really difficult to describe it doesn't mean it didn't happen.