Reaction to: Yudkowsky and Frank on Religious Experience, Yudkowksy and Frank On Religious Experience Pt 2, A Parable On Obsolete Ideologies

Frank's point got rather lost in all this. It seems to be quite simple: there's a warm fuzziness to life that science just doesn't seem to get, and some religious artwork touches on and stimulates this warm fuzziness, and hence is of value.1 Moreover, understanding this point seems rather important to being able to spread an ideology.

The main problem is viewing this warm fuzziness as a "mystery." This warm fuzziness, as an experience, is a reality. It's part of that set of things that doesn't go away no matter what you say or think about them. Women (or men) will still be alluring, food will still be delicious, and Michaelangelo's David will still be beautiful, no matter how well you describe these phenomenon. The view that shattering mysteries reduces their value is very much a result of religion trying to protect itself. EY is probably correct that science will one day destroy this mystery as it has so many others, but because it is an "experience we can't clearly describe" rather than an actual "mystery," the experience will remain. The argument is with the description, not the experience; the experience is real, and experiences of its nature are totally desirable.

The second, sub-point: Frank thinks that certain religious stories and artwork may be of artistic value. The selection of the story of Job is unfortunate, but both speakers value it for the same reason: its truth. One sees it as true (and inspiring) and likes it, the other sees it as false (and insidious) and hates it. I think both agree that if you put it on the shelf next to Tolkien, and rational atheists still buy it and enjoy it, hey, good for Job. And if not, well, throw it out with the rest of the trash.

Frank also has a point about rationality not being the only way to view the world. I think he's once again right, he's just really, tragically bad at expressing his point without borrowing heavily from religion. His point seems to be that rationality isn't the only way to *experience* the world, which is absolutely, 100% right. You don't experience the world through rationality. You experience it through your senses and the qualia of consciousness. Rationality is how you figure out what's going on, or what's going to be going on, or what causes one thing to happen and not another. Appreciating art, or food, or sex, or life is not generally done by applying rationality. Rationality is extremely useful for figuring out how to get these things we like, or even figure out what things we should like, but it doesn't factor into the qualitative experience of those things in most cases. For many people it probably doesn't factor into the enjoyment of anything. If you don't embrace and explain this distinction, you come out looking like Spock.

This seems to be a key point atheists fail to communicate, because it is logically irrelevant to the truth of their propositions. A lot of people avoid decisions that they believe will destroy everything that makes them happy, and I'm not sure we can blame them. It's important to explain that you can still have all kinds of warm fuzziness, and, even better, you can be really confident it's well-founded and avoid abysmal epistemology, too! Instead, the atheist tries to defeat some weird, religiously-motivated expression of warm fuzziness, and that becomes the debate, and people like their fuzzies.

We experience warm fuzziness directly,2 through however our brains work. No amount of science is likely to change that, no matter how well it understands the phenomenon. This is a good thing for science, and it's a good thing for warmth and fuzziness.


1- I have admittedly not read his book. It's quite possible he's advocating we actually go through religion and make it fit our current sensibilities, then take it as uber-fiction. If that's the case, I have serious problems with it. If that's not the case, and he just thinks that some of it contains truth/beauty/is salvagable as literature, then I have serious problems with the argumentum-ad-hitlerum employed against him, as it seems to burn a straw man.


2 - I'm not saying there's warm fuzziness in the territory and we put it in our map. There's something in the territory that, when we map it out, the mapping causes us to directly experience a feeling of warm fuzziness.

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Women will still be alluring, food will still be delicious, and Michaelangelo's David will still be beautiful, no matter how well you describe these phenomenon.

I hate to pick on petty details, but I've been pondering the absence of women here lately and this sort of thing really does add up to a sense of being an outsider. This is awfully male/hetero-centric. (I somehow don't get the feeling that "you" here is a lesbian or bi woman. I guess I could be mistaken.)

Being handed that sense of outsider-ness is really distracting from the rest of your post. Which I will now read more carefully in an attempt to focus on your actual point instead of petty details.

Point of curiosity: Have I ever done this? I usually try to avoid this sort of thing but of course it's not always conscious either.

Closest I can think of is the mind-projection fallacy (torn dress = sexy), but that's really much more the sci-fi writers doing it than you -- hence the fallacy.
3Eliezer Yudkowsky15y
Yep. But just to check, was anyone out there offended?
I am much less offended by this than by the suggestion I will be attracted to Jessica Alba. "Women" includes me. I will take it as a compliment. I can tolerate all sorts of stuff, and can just accept the maleness of this site, but it should be easy to amend to no longer be gender specific, or heteronormative. "The touch of another person's skin will still be wonderfully sensuous", perhaps? Or miss out sex as an example, stick to sunsets, music, rainbows, animals, the vista from a hilltop, the sea, great literature.... for examples of the merely real.
I find this type of nitpicking really annoying. Surely everyone (no matter their gender / sex / preferences) understands the sentence 'Women will be alluring' to be a generalised example and can easily convert this to include their own specific preferences without the author having to jump through hoops to provide examples that apply to everyone. "The touch of another person's skin will still be wonderfully sensuous" - you can't say that - you are discriminating against those without a sense of touch! "sunsets" - you can't say that, what about blind and/or extreme photo-sensitives and so on. If he had written 'Football games will still be exciting' I would have got the intended meaning and moved on, despite the fact that I have zero interest in football.

I'm genuinely puzzled by this sort of hostile reaction to what was really a pretty mild request for gender neutral language/examples. It seems utterly out of proportion to the original comment(s).

Clearly, any example one comes up with is probably capable of somehow excluding someone, and trying to screen off all possible objections seems unduly onerous given (a) it's damn near impossible; and (b) the benefits of not excluding left-handed hermaphrodite axylotl enthusiasts are, all things considered, rather small.

But that's not quite what we're talking about. While women are certainly scarce on LW, in other parts of the world, they comprise roughly half the population. And using gender neutral language/examples is really easy - much easier than jumping through actual hoops, and probably also easier than writing comments telling people how annoyed you are about their nitpicking. The cost-benefit analysis here seems pretty straightforward.

So why does this seem to annoy (some) people so much?

Is the problem that you actually think it's illegitimate for people to be bothered by stuff like this? Seriously? Wanting to be included is illegitimate? Wow. I guess it's easy to think that things don't matter when they don't systematically affect you personally, but still.

His reaction wasn't all that hostile. And a request being mild doesn't make the request reasonable, or make it unreasonable to be annoyed by it. Not really? This is a baffling take. How does writing one comment about being annoyed by something compare to potentially years of committing to gender-neutral language, not just by using singular "they" (for example), but by replacing entire sentence clauses like "Women will still be alluring" with "The touch of another person's skin will still be wonderfully sensuous" (what??), even when you're obviously writing said sentence to reflect your own sensibilities more than the audience's and the sentence is easily generalizable anyway? Not to mention that it's the principle of the thing. If you genuinely don't see any good reason why you should do a Thing at all, and perhaps even see some reasons why you shouldn't, it makes little to no difference that the Thing is supposedly "really easy" to do. That doesn't by itself constitute a good reason to do the Thing. (I realize part of conchis's argument against this in the first place is the burden it imposes, but I don't perceive that as their only argument. But even if that was their only argument, it still holds as long as "doing the Thing" is not strictly easier than not doing it. As opposed to only being easier than jumping through hoops.) "Stuff like this" is a very broad category. I'm sure it wasn't deliberate, but you're essentially sneaking in anything vaguely related, including things that are reasonable to get upset about, to make conchis's position look worse. For my part, I don't think it's illegitimate to be bothered by all "stuff like this"; but I do think it's illegitimate to be bothered by this specific sentence that Emily et al. complained about. You're conflating the actual contested issue, "wanting this specific sentence, and perhaps similar sentences in similar contexts, to be gender neutral", with the broader and much less contested issue "wanting to be i
3Mike Bishop15y
Women are a much larger actual and potential audience than the blind. Therefore, it makes much more sense to consider women's preferences when writing.
But are "Women who would be annoyed by the statement 'Women are alluring'" a large potential audience? I would think that the audience for this specific sentence would break down into (roughly): a) Those it directly applies to (hetro males, bi females, etc.), who immediately agree 'Yes, women sure are alluring!' b) Those it does not apply to , but who regard it as complimentary (e.g. hetro females), 'Yes, I sure am alluring!' c) Those it does not apply to, but who understand its intention without feeling that it marginalises them. 'I don't get what the big deal about women is, but I know LOTS of people who find women alluring' d) Those it does not apply to, who feel actively excluded. 'I don't find women alluring, the author is trying to exclude me - he really should change the text to something that I like." I would have thought that category d) is tiny. Note to Emily: I am really not trying to exclude you or pick on you! I just find it really surprising you would feel excluded by a (positive, and relatively uncontroversial!) comment about women from a male author.
Don't worry, I don't feel picked on or excluded -- actually, I've been pleasantly surprised to see how willing people are to have these discussions frankly. But you haven't quite got the issue right, not from my personal point of view anyway. What I think when I run across something like the "women are alluring" statement isn't too similar to d). It's more like: "Women are alluring, ah yes they sure are to many people (possibly even insert a little of b) here). Cool. I hope this isn't one of those people who thinks we aren't good for much else... Hey, you can really tell this post is written by another het guy, can't you? And that he didn't stop to consider any viewpoint other than his own on this particular issue. Not that I blame him particularly, but does this ever get tiring when it happens all the damn time. I wonder if there's anywhere else this guy has forgotten to account for other valid perspectives in this article? What the heck was this piece all about anyway?" I've noticed a couple of people saying that it wouldn't bother them if the situation was reversed. I have to admit to a twinge of impatience with this opinion, although I'm sure those expressing it are not being deliberately obtuse or condescending. No, of course it wouldn't bother you, because you don't have to put up with this crap all the time. It's called privilege. Being male, you have the privilege to ignore that sort of thing on the rare occasions when it does happen to you. This is why it's an issue. Just like it was an issue that my friend was asked by her supervising professor yesterday whether she's ever considered that there might be something seriously wrong with her "because most girls have really neat round writing and yours isn't". That's an idiotic remark that deserves to be simply ignored. But we can't afford to ignore these little silly things because they happen so ridiculously often.
Emily: I have heard this argument before, and I don't think it carries quite the same force as you apparently do. You seem to vastly underestimate the kinds of remarks that men hear constantly that tell them that because they are men, they must be a certain way. The general culture is full of notions, some loud and some winking, that men are terrible, evil, violent, lazy, stupid, inept, and on and on. Turn on any American primetime television show and observe the male characters with a dispassionate eye. Try to discern which gender is more often portrayed as truly malevolent (on dramas) or incompetent (comedies), and which gender most often carries the torch of moral rightness, or has to clean up all the messes made by the bumbling idiot. You are using a "stop sign" ( in your argument when you say that a man couldn't possibly understand what it feels like. You are heading off disagreement at the pass, signaling that anyone who proceeds with disagreeing nevertheless is therefore insensitive and unfeeling. This is poor form (though of course quite common), and it has the added vice of being untrue. I can understand it just fine, thank you very much. There are differences between the situation of men and that of women, that I can see that might support your argument. One, supporting your sense that women literally feel these comments in a way that men can't, is that there are vastly more men in positions of power (although, of course, men pay much more in taxes to a government that redistributes that wealth disproportionately to women, and of course that there are also vastly more male victims of violence, men that die on the streets, die in wars, rot in prison, live as shut-ins, go untreated for severe drug and alcohol dependency... but this rarely enters into discussions about gender privelege because the answer to this question has already been determined before the discussion even started... to even que
Thanks for the thoughtful reply, RoS. I agree that there is some merit in your point about the "stop sign"; in fact, before I had any real understanding of feminism myself (not that I consider myself to have a massive amount now), that was my general response to this sort of thing too. I thought the stance I'm taking now was rather whiney, self-centred and, as you think, obstructive with regards to dialogue and argument. But I've come to see that engaging with feminism rather than seizing this opportunity to dismiss it actually makes a lot more sense. I do, of course, agree that there are very many negative stereotypes around about men, and they're as unhelpful and undesireable as the ones about women. And obviously, there are positive stereotypes about women as well as about men (more about this below). But as you go on to say, the situation is far from balanced: men are, by and large, the ones with the power. Do you disagree that this situation, which has been the case forever, means that there's an imbalance in the effects that stereotyping, exclusion etc. directed towards women as opposed to men can have? (By the way, perhaps this is different political perspectives talking, but I don't understand your point about redistribution of wealth. Is it okay for certain groups to have less political power as long as they reap the benefits of others paying taxes? I can see that argument working where the group in question is children, and perhaps the severely mentally disabled (maybe that's controversial?), but otherwise I see no justification for it whatsoever.) I didn't actually mean to assert that I could understand men's experiences better than they can understand women's -- I was simply working with people's assertions that, in fact, the reversed situation wouldn't bother them -- but it happens that some schools of thought do believe that to be the case: that women do actually have a better handle on how men see the world than vice versa. That's because the male
Seconded. I'd like to add that it's not remotely implausible for two mutually exclusive and exhaustive groups to both suffer unambiguously negative discrimination simultaneously; the sorts of negatives women experience have already been gone over in some detail, but for instance, men have a terrible time trying to win custody battles. Unfairness to group A does not compensate for different unfairness to group B; discrimination is not fungible in that way. It is possible to focus on group A's injustices without, in so doing, assuming that nothing is wrong with how group B is treated.
Why does it matter that politicians are men if they enact policies they chose to appeal to voters of both genders?
A few possible reasons, just off the top of my head: 1. Representative democracy is a pretty weak constraint on political action, all things considered. 2. Cognitive diversity is generally a good thing for decision making bodies. 3. Role models are important. 4. Sometimes symbolism matters. I think 1-3 are fairly obvious, but can provide more argument/detail if you disagree. I'm probably least sympathetic to 4. YMMV.
Fair enough. Even so, any disparity in male vs female political power seems to me to be smaller than the disparity in male vs female politicians. Maybe that's not Emily meant to claim, though.
If that's the case (which I'm not necessarily at all convinced of, but let's go with it), I'm not so sure that it does matter for society as a whole. What does matter is that it's more difficult for individual women to become politicians than for individual men.
Maybe, but few people even want to become politicians. Does this have anything to do with (what I think was) the original question: that of whether it's reasonable for women to fear being excluded from places like LessWrong?
So women have more trouble breaking into a particular tiny minority career, and therefore other women should feel anguish over the rare "women are alluring" goofup on LessWrong? If there's anything relating to the original point here I'm not seeing it.
Well, I wasn't the one who brought up politicians as an example. But they are an example (just an example) of the imbalance of power, opportunity, control, call it what you like, that exists between men and women. And that imbalance is part of the reason why some women do (no "should" about it; I'm happy for those that don't) feel annoyance or distraction (not anguish, at least certainly not in my case) over such goofups.
Upvoted for your consistent politeness on a topic where it is very easy to get angry. Thanks for helping keep the discourse constructive!
I must confess, I am somewhat dismayed that an individual who would say something that inane and obtuse is a professor.
I only wish academia were immune to this sort of nonsense. I actually feel as though I've noticed an increase in my experience of it since coming to university.
With the isolated environment, there is a certain tendency for academics to... fossilize. If the professor in question was an older man, likely he was a product of his time who changed little since then. For all the "liberal" reputation the academic world has, in many ways it is remarkably backward-looking, except possibly in cutting-edge science.
Have you considered that this runaway train of thought might be a you problem, rather than a problem with the sentence? Because that was tiring to read, so I'm sure it must be tiring to think whenever you read a sentence that could plausibly lead to the conclusion that the writer is a guy. From where I stand, the issue seems to be that you didn't stop at that observation (which should be a neutral observation). You went well beyond what can reasonably be gleaned from the sentence, into unnecessary negative speculation ("I hope this isn't one of those people who thinks we aren't good for much else", "he didn't stop to consider any viewpoint other than his own on this particular issue"). Nothing wrong with getting lost in the weeds, but these are your weeds, not the sentence's weeds. If you could halt that train of thought at "Oh, the writer's probably a guy", and not get lost in the weeds, would there still be a problem with the sentence?
Wow, you certainly got a lot from "Women are alluring"! Thanks for clarifying, this is very interesting. I would be very interested to hear what was your reaction to the phrase "Michaelangelo's David will still be beautiful". Was it anything similar?
No, certainly nothing distracting from the point like the alluring women statement. I slid past it without much of a specific reaction at all, as I imagine most people would. I'm not sure I see the connection here -- what am I missing?
How about if he had said that " The Venus De Milo will still be beautiful"? Or "Jesssica Alba will still be beautiful"? I personally would have put David fairly low on my list of things that I find beautiful, but I immediately got the intended meaning.
Several thoughts on that: 1. There are no systematic, entrenched mechanisms in society for excluding and marginalising people who don't find Michaelangelo's David particularly beautiful (okay, you could probably construct something here about the tension between "high" and "low" culture, but I don't think it would be germane). Hence the fact that you don't feel excluded or marginalised, and nor do I by this one. There are systematic, entrenched mechanisms (perhaps not quite the right word) for excluding and marginalising women, so a statement that excludes most women is taken not just alone but as part of a cumulative effect that many women feel. I'm not sure how I can put this any more clearly. 2. Pretty much the same applies to the Venus de Milo as to David, I'm sure. They're works of art. Individuals may or may not like them, whatever -- as you say, we still see the point clearly, and it's no big deal because there's no general discrimination going on over such preferences. 3. The Jessica Alba one probably lies somewhere between the alluring women and the beautiful sculptures, to me. The fact that you've used "beautiful" rather than "alluring" makes a big difference; as a straight woman, I can certainly find other women beautiful, although I may not find them alluring, so it doesn't feel like as great a disjoint. I imagine people would have quite varied reactions to that one. 4. The fact that you "immediately got the intended meaning" from the David point is somewhat irrelevant, I think. Of course I also immediately got the intended meaning from the alluring women one; the problem certainly isn't that it's hard to see. It's just that all the other reactions surrounding it are a distraction from the point.
Thanks for the thorough reply. Sorry if I appear to be missing the point here, but I am genuinely trying to understand your point of view. Re. 4), yes, I worded that badly and it's obvious that you get it!
You're welcome. It's good to have a genuine dialogue.
I can't speak for others, but I was in category d).
Fair enough. I have updated my estimate of the size of the d) population.
1Mike Bishop15y
I agree with your main point,* few people will be bothered by such an example, BUT its easy to use more inclusive language, so in my opinion the benefits still outweigh the costs. So it takes us white hetero males from middle/upper class backgrounds a few extra seconds to come up with examples. I think we can handle it. *I don't quite agree with your categories... people may find it complimentary, or at least not believe that the author is trying to exclude them, but still be distracted from the point of the sentence or be reminded that they are a minority in our community, a reminder some prefer not to have.
Is this an expression of your prior about the size of the category, or your posterior? Have you updated your prior on learning (to your surprise) that people apparently do feel excluded/get distracted by this sort of thing? I can't claim to speak for anyone else, but to me, your focus on "positive, and relatively uncontroversial" seems to miss the point. The problem is that the original statement: (a) assumed that the relevant agents are exclusively male, and that women are merely passive objects that men are attracted to;* and that (b) it did so in a context where this implicit assumption is fairly common, which probably gets a bit frustrating after a while. As an aside, would it surprise you if people felt excluded by your telling them that you find their concerns "really annoying"? * While it was technically compatible with the agents being bi/homosexual females, it seems fairly fairly clear that this wasn't really a factor in the choice of wording.
Prior. I have updated very slightly towards Emily's position, but this is balanced by the responses from every female I have personally asked about this, all of whom fell into the a) or b) response. Of course, we all know that comparing two very small samples is far from ideal :-) No, but excluding people is certainly not the intent. Every time I write something I assume that someone, somewhere will find it really annoying.
I am irritated to find my post named as "nitpicking" when I was answering a direct question. I too "got the meaning and moved on". Alvarojabril below, much clearer- "The glance of a lover will still be alluring". Why not go with that?
Sorry, the rather harsh 'nitpicking' should really have been addressed to the top comment in the chain that started this line of discussion. I placed it as a comment after your contribution because I wanted to point out that even your attempts to give a more generic and widely applicable example will be doomed to failure, because you will always end up making some assumptions about the audience.
I'm sorry about that -- I'm aware that it does seem like nitpicking, and if it were just an isolated thing then it certainly would be irrelevant nitpicking. But when it's a common occurrence that I believe really does have a negative impact, I don't see it that way. I do feel a bit guilty about having created a runaway thread and somewhat derailed the topic at hand. On the other hand, the number of responses suggests to me that others agree this is an important topic, so I don't think a discussion on it is a bad thing at all.
The outcome of this surely seems likely to swing behavior closer to what you would like to see. It seems that the comment was a success. I wouldn't feel guilty about it at all.
0Mike Bishop15y
Yes, but we should keep these assumptions to a minimum, especially when: a) they might negatively affect some people's experience of LW. b) it is fairly easy to make it more universal.
2Mike Bishop15y
Gender role models matter for choosing a science major in college. I realize that is only a loosely related issue, but it does make me think more carefully about gender issues.
Is it really reasonable to equate something that applies intrinsically to half the population to something that applies to very few people, or to something that is a matter of non-intrinsic taste? This sems like an unfair argument from absurdity.
I'm genuinely puzzled by this sort of hostile reaction to what was really a pretty mild request for gender neutral language/examples. It seems utterly out of proportion to the original comment(s). Clearly, any example one comes up with is probably capable of somehow excluding someone, and trying to screen off all possible objections seems unduly onerous given (a) it's damn near impossible; and (b) the benefits of not excluding left-handed hermaphrodite axylotl enthusiasts are, all things considered, rather small. But that isn't really the situation here. While women are certainly scarce on LW, in other parts of the world, they comprise roughly half the population, and using gender neutral language/examples is really easy - certainly much easier than jumping through actual hoops, and probably even easier than writing comments telling people how annoyed you are about their nitpicking. The cost-benefit analysis here seems pretty straightforward. Is the problem that you actually think it's illegitimate for people to be bothered by stuff like this? Seriously? Wanting to be included is illegitimate? Wow. I guess it's easy to think that things don't matter when they don't systematically affect you personally, but still.
how about "lover"?
... and when we're done with that can we braid each other's hair? I'm all for having a community that is inclusive of both men and women. I'm not so enthusiastic about a community that welcomes only women and emascalated husks who have to talk like women lest they give offence. Miss out sex as an example? Hell no! When we're talking about those things that we can experience as humans that distinguish us from intelligent, epistimcally rational AI bots or sims then why on earth would I leave out the primary one? Sure, once we've uploaded our brains into silicone emulators I'll stop talking about the allure of a woman's breasts as an obvious example of an 'experience that is more than just knowledge' and start blurring my sexual identity with filtered vocabulary. But until that day I'm going to keep my balls attached thankyou very much.
6Eliezer Yudkowsky15y
Writing as a male is very different from writing to males.
I totally agree that this situation would be awful. But it's certainly not what I'm advocating, and I don't see anyone else advocating that we force everyone to "talk like women". (Do you realise just how disparaging that sounds, incidentally? Because women are obviously just a homogenous bunch who all talk in exactly the same way.) Surely there's some middle ground here where no one feels excluded?
I actually didn't think that was the controversial part of my statement. There is a well documented difference in the level of sensory experience women tend to convey through their communication, and it is a difference that I would suggest is more disparaging to males! It did seem significant to me that "The touch of another person's skin will still be wonderfully sensuous" was presented as an equivalent substitution to "the allure of a woman". While both are valid they are definitely conveying a different experience and are a whole different form of communication. I do support additions such as "or the appeal of ", to make the statement balanced. I can not agree that replacing lustful allure should be replaced with the appeal of intimate touch. Those are different experiences and the former is more likely to be used publicly by males than by females prior to any social sanctions on the use. Absolutely
"Do you realise just how disparaging that sounds, incidentally? Because women are obviously just a homogenous bunch..." -- The original statement is offensive to women, doesn't that also mean that you assume that women are "just a homogenous bunch"? You seem to want to homogenise women for supporting points, but consider them heterogeneous for opposing points.
She didn't specify that it sounded offensive to women only, let alone to all women.
Hi Alicorn, Thanks for the response. But if we interpret that only she is offended by it, or any nonspecified group, then I think scotherns' examples such as ""The touch of another person's skin will still be wonderfully sensuous" - you can't say that - you are discriminating against those without a sense of touch!" also are valid. It seems to me that we have to assume that she bases her case on some sizeable homogeneous group (that gets offended). Women? - perhaps she can clarify.
Hi phaedrus, I'm not sure I understand exactly what you're getting at. As Alicorn pointed out, when I called that phrase disparaging, I didn't mean to imply that all women would be offended by it -- just that it's very dismissive (and for that matter not really very rationally sound) to make sweeping generalisations about the way 50% of the population talk. (I'm honestly not quite sure what the original poster of that comment, which has since been deleted, even meant by it.) I'd certainly be opposed to sweeping, dismissive generalisations about people without a sense of touch as well, though I'm not sure I've ever come across one. It seems to me that you might be conflating two different arguments here: 1. We should avoid using language that excludes a group of the population when there exists a straightforward alternative. 2. We should avoid making generalisations about people based on their membership in a group sharing a single feature. I think 2 is a pretty solid, sensible rule in general, but 1 obviously carries more weight when a) the group in question is a particularly large or contextually-salient one, and b) the point can be made just as easily without marginalising people. Both a) and b) apply to the original example in the post that was being discussed. Neither are quite so readily applicable to the "no sense of touch" example that you mentioned, so personally I'd be a lot more inclined to leave that one as it is.
Be reassured -- no one's going to detach your balls if you write in the style of, um, the negation of an emasculated husk. Just be aware of the forseeable consequences of choosing that style (or any strongly identified style): people who do not identify with you will have a barrier to get over to understand what you want to say. And don't be surprised if, as a result, said people conclude from your choice of style that you're not interested in communicating with them in particular.
Ooh, that sounds fun! Do mine first!
I can't help but wonder whether this was an intentional pun, or just a Freudian slip. ;-)
Well, the typing it was a Freudian slip, the leaving it there when I noticed it before posting, that was an intentional pun. :D
I can't say I recall any instance of your doing something like that, no.
While I completely agree, I find it strange that you get distracted by this sort of thing. Not wrong or weird, just interesting. Do you really feel like you are an outsider from five words? It is good for me to hear how important things like this are. I have been trying to become more abstract in gender assignments but find it difficult to catch them all and keep wondering if it really matters. Apparently it does.
I didn't mention it myself because I don't want to turn into the feminism police of Less Wrong, but I'll put in my two cents since Emily brought it up. I found it distracting too - and I am bi, so it's not like I don't find women alluring, so I attribute my distraction entirely to the sense that it was directed at a presumed male audience. It would have been trivially easy to cut the example or replace it with a nice inclusive "members of the relevant sex(es)", and it would have demonstrated that there was conscious consideration of the full audience going on instead of thoughtless assumption. Of course, including the example at all excludes asexuals. Do we have any of those here?

I attribute my distraction entirely to the sense that it was directed at a presumed male audience.

When I write I generally do not consider the gender of my audience one way or the other. Since I happen to be male I would think, "Oh, females are alluring," and use the example. I expect I would do this even talking to a room full of nothing but hetero-women.

But thinking about it as addressing the audience makes more sense of the distraction. I guess I am not so much male-centric as self-centric? Silly me, generalizing from one example and assuming everyone else writes the way I have been.

Well, thanks for the input.

And that is perhaps a key point. Were I to read "men will still be alluring" I would get a sense that the author is a woman. I'd be briefly distracted by some cognitive dissonance and cringe slightly at some imagery that doesn't mesh well with my own desires. But I wouldn't get a sense that I was being exculded from an intended female audience. I've both read and observed that women tend to be more interested in meta-communication and in particular to implications of 'belonging'. Perhaps because when women use exclusion to bitch at each other while the male equivalent is one-upmanship. In any case, communicating across that cultural divide creates enough confusion that we can expect self help authors to remain employed more or less indefinitely.
There's also a much greater history of women being excluded from male groups than the other way around, so it's unfortunately not unreasonable for women to subconsciously draw stronger conclusions from such phrasing.
Well, there is that one commenter who keeps mentioning that he's an eunuch. Do they count as asexuals?
Excluding half your audience when there's an obvious counterpart for the other half is silly. Excluding a small minority is inevitable. That's part of the reason you use a cluster of examples -- you hope that each reader will identify strongly with at least one. I think the best fix here is "Women will still be alluring, men will still be [insert-adjective-here], food will still ..." etc. Preserves the specificity of the original while making clear that you're to take what you like.
Therein lies the problem. I was aware of the gender bias when I wrote the example. But "alluring" does not seem like an appropriate adjective to describe men. I could be wrong, but I'm under the impression that the quality in a man that elicits the analagous experience that an alluring woman elicits is best described by another adjective, and I frankly have no idea what it is. I chose the original phrasing because it was the simplest, clearest, and most elegant way I could think of to express that point. Of course, since people seem to take special notice of it, it clearly wasn't worthwhile in any practical sense, so I've edited it to be more inclusive, though I think it flows slightly worse as a result. I am curious as to whether drawing attention to the author's gender is purely undesirable, or only undesirable where that gender already makes up a substantial majority of the readership/authorship.
But you weren't speaking in terms of the author's gender. The preceeding sentence ends with "(...) no matter what you say or think about them.", creating a second-person context, hence the implication of projecting the author's gender onto the audience. If you had phrased the following sentence in first person, or as an acknowledged-to-be-male third person, it likely would have bothered people less.
Not sure I disagree in principle, definitely would have used a sex-neutral phrasing in the original post, but calling women "half the audience" is off by an entire order of magnitude. (If anybody's keeping count, I'm a-curious, don't enjoy food, think David is just some random naked guy made out of rock, and was more distracted by this comment thread than anyone was by the thing the comment thread was about.)
Entirely true, but they're still half the potential audience. Writing with a mostly-male audience in mind is a good way to maintain a mostly-male audience
They quite obviously aren't anywhere remotely close to half the potential audience, because to be part of the potential audience, you need certain background knowledge, interests, personality features/bugs, and other things that apparently are very lopsidedly distributed between genders. I assume you're not actually claiming that 90% of one gender was chased away because once in a while someone makes an off-hand comment that, if implicit disclaimers are removed, seems to assume a heterosexual male audience.
Of course not. Honestly, I don't think we're disagreeing on any significant point of fact or policy, so if it's all the same, I think I'll leave this here.
OK. Sorry if I sounded testy, random bad mood or something.
on both our parts, I think -- sorry for trying to defend more than I needed to.
What makes you think the audience factors in at all? I'd think this phrasing would be much more an indication that the writer is male. Why would I feel excluded by someone writing about the world from their own perspective? If I had written this post, I would have written "Men would still be alluring"; and I would have written it that way because I am a woman attracted to men, not because I expect my audience to be mostly women attracted to men.
Of course, including the food example alienates those who don't enjoy it, and using David as an exemplar of beauty alienates... me?
This actually gets to something interesting...perhaps there are some objects of beauty we could agree on...the sun, the human form, etc...but these things are so primeval that their beauty is continually contextually mediated by "truth" (the thrill of science, EY's space expansion) or "lies" (religion et al.).
If it were one single set of five words (on LW or in the world in general), I very much doubt I would notice at all. But sadly, this sort of thing happens a lot, and the effect really is cumulative, at least for me.

I just got off the phone with my mom.

Mom: You're working hard on your PhD, aren't you?

Me: Yes, ma there's lots to do. Oh and I put in a paper for a conference. If it gets accepted I'll go to America to present it.

Mom: Of course it will get accepted. You're working so hard, won't God listen to you?

Everything comes from God. Forget making amazing awe-inspiring monuments. Writing a paper on air pollution in London comes from Him. Getting to go to a conference comes from Him.

My mom can't truly appreciate what I do. Because fundamentally, at the gut level, she can't get that I can accomplish anything. It's arrogant for me to even think I could do anything without Lord Krishna's supreme flute inspired magic.

Now that's a problem I want to solve.

I notice also in this example, the focus on your hard work rather than the results of your work: producing a good PhD thesis, writing a paper that the conference values. It is as if your hard work would be just as valuable if it did not produce the results, and less valuable if you worked less hard to produce the same results. "Working hard" on your PhD seems about as useful as "trying" to flip a switch. It seems that these issues are related; hard work is a virtue that God rewards, not the direct cause of good results.
Actually, the Gita says that you "have the right to work, but not the right to the fruits of your work", which I always interpreted as meaning that one should take pleasure in the work itself, because excessive outcome-dependence is bad for your peace of mind. But it would also make sense if a common interpretation of the phrase is that work is a virtue admired by the gods, or even that everyone has a societal duty to uphold through work, even if all the benefits of that work go to others. (After all, in the verses all around that one bit of useful advice, there's an awful lot of Lord Krishna talking about how various evils lead eventually to such horrors as the mixing of castes!)
Of course, if it doesn't get accepted, that too will be part of God's plan. Nevermind the fact that if God is the explanation for everything, it's really the explanation for nothing
Likewise, have you noticed that after someone successfully undergoes a difficult, risky, multi-hour surgical operation to handle some kind of medical emergency, it's far more correct to thank God for His mercy than it is to, say, credit modern medicine, or even the doctors who performed the operation?
People seem afraid to either claim accomplishment for themselves, or to acknowledge that others can accomplish great things, on topics that inspire fear and uncertainty. As in your difficult and risky surgical operation example: the idea of being so injured and being in such a surgery seems to be so personally threatening that many people cannot cope with the idea that their lives are (literally) in a person's hands. A fallible, weak person. And that the outcome is seriously influenced by chance. It's much more comforting to pretend that an all-powerful magic parent figure is intervening in a predictable and certain way. Medicine is messed-up, doctors are messed-up, so we can't possibly allow ourselves to acknowledge that they're in charge. (And they are messed-up, quite deeply.)
Even moreso, the alternative seems to be placing blame entirely on the doctor for not being an omnipotent being when the surgery goes wrong. "It was his time, he's in heaven now" seems like a pretty sweet cop-out, and it should come as no surprise that a more secular society would hold its surgeons too accountable.
But this doesn't seem to be what we are seeing empirically: northern europe is a lot more secular than the US, yet it is the US that has the problems with excessive medical malpractice litigation.
1Mike Bishop15y
The US has more lawsuits outside of the medical arena as well. I think this has more to do with our respective legal systems rather than how secular we are.
Being responsible and engaging in malpractice are two different things. We might not say that a surgeon violated any of the proprieties, yet still hold that he failed to save a patient; the alternative seems to be saying that the death was fated and it was "his time to go".
1Mike Bishop15y
I would say that our accountability system for medical doctors is poorly designed. Some doctors are held accountable for things they should not be, others are not held accountable for things they should be. Its not at all clear to me that the former problem problem exceeds the latter.
I don't agree that would be too accountable; holding someone responsible isn't the same as holding them blameworthy. In any case, the vagaries of chance should be acknowledged as a contributing factor. But I can easily imagine that, in very difficult surgeries in which the chance of catastrophic failure is quite large, doctors are perfectly willing to deflect praise for success in order that failure not be associated with them as well. It's easier not to be considered responsible for outcomes, sometimes, even when logically we have at least a contributing influence.
That reminds me of "To whom, then, do I owe a debt of gratitude? To the cardiologist who has kept me alive and ticking for years, and who swiftly and confidently rejected the original diagnosis of nothing worse than pneumonia. To the surgeons, neurologists, anesthesiologists, and the perfusionist, who kept my systems going for many hours under daunting circumstances. To the dozen or so physician assistants, and to nurses and physical therapists and x-ray technicians and a small army of phlebotomists so deft that you hardly know they are drawing your blood, and the people who brought the meals, kept my room clean, did the mountains of laundry generated by such a messy case, wheel-chaired me to x-ray, and so forth. These people came from Uganda, Kenya, Liberia, Haiti, the Philippines, Croatia, Russia, China, Korea, India—and the United States, of course—and I have never seen more impressive mutual respect, as they helped each other out and checked each other's work. But for all their teamwork, this local gang could not have done their jobs without the huge background of contributions from others. I remember with gratitude my late friend and Tufts colleague, physicist Allan Cormack, who shared the Nobel Prize for his invention of the c-t scanner. Allan—you have posthumously saved yet another life, but who's counting? The world is better for the work you did. Thank goodness. Then there is the whole system of medicine, both the science and the technology, without which the best-intentioned efforts of individuals would be roughly useless. So I am grateful to the editorial boards and referees, past and present, of Science, Nature, Journal of the American Medical Association, Lancet, and all the other institutions of science and medicine that keep churning out improvements, detecting and correcting flaws. "

there's a warm fuzziness to life that science just doesn't seem to get

Not true. Science helps create new warm fuzzies whereas religion has been re-using the same old one for millennia. The problem with religion is not that it lets people have warm fuzzies but that it provides false explanations.

For example, the building in Ireland that is discussed in the first BHTV episode: I imagine the warm fuzzies one gets on visiting that place are to do with the atmosphere that has been created, that rare experience of the sunlight breaking through carefully craf... (read more)

No, no, no, a thousand times no. Rationality is not how we experience the world; it's how we process our experience. I'm eating something tasty; rationality has nothing whatsoever to do with that immediate experience. I can apply rationality to that experience to figure out how to have more like it, or if a somewhat similar experience would be similar in enough ways to give me a pleasant experience. But if you put "rationality" into "way to experience the world" you get a category error.
I'm skeptical. Why do you think it would be difficult for a religious person to come up with the monument idea, for example?
Hrishimittal didn't make that claim and even if he had, questioning it would not be particularly relevant to the point which you quoted and expressed skeptisism towards.
I didn't say it would be difficult for a religious person to come up with that idea. But if a religious person did come up with it, what does that have to do with their religion?
"Love your neighbor as yourself", perhaps?
That reply does not seem to answer hrishimittal's question or even convey a tangental insight.
His point seems to be that rationality isn't the only way to experience the world, which is absolutely, 100% right. But it's the one that wins. And people do want to win. I want to take issue with this Less Wrong mantra. It's just not true for many people, and you'll have a hard time winning them over if you can't empathize with that. We value rationality first and foremost because if you take the long view it wins and in the world we populate it wins. But for many people recklessness wins, or faith wins - for whatever reason, the social systems they have inherited and constructed for themselves contain constraints which favor nonrational behavior. Right. It's done through intelligence, that's why rats don't paint. Remember EY's intelligence scale? The distinction is not between village idiot and Einstein. It's between amoeba, chimps, humans and higher intelligences. What I'm basically getting at is that the tendency to emphasize the latter distinction can cause one to undervalue dissimilarity in the human social world.
You seem to be making an argument both for and against our cause in the same breath. The reason irrationality "wins" for the "many people" you mention is that they re-define winning in hindsight when things don't work out. We are challenging those social systems, which are unaccountable and only provide mysterious explanations when they fail. We aspire to build more robust systems. That's what I think winning is. I imagine you feel bad for all the religious people being left out, but that's only because of their large numbers. No one feels bad for string theorists. A large following doesn't make religion right. Lots of stupidity is not intelligence. The point of emphasising this distinction is to put the value of human intelligence on the right order. And if your main point is recognising the fact that bad or irrational decisions may perhaps be a result of variability in intelligence or its use, then religion only functions to hide that truth. We are at least admitting it and saying it's not fair. Denial is not a path to improvement.
Does it really matter if the definition of winning shifts, as long as you still experience the warm fuzzies? I think for some people it doesn't. Quoting Eliezer's OB post If satisfying your intuitions is more important to you than money, do whatever the heck you want. Drop the money over Niagara falls. Blow it all on expensive champagne. Set fire to your hair. Whatever. If the largest utility you care about is the utility of feeling good about your decision, then any decision that feels good is the right one.

I think this post made some very good points and I've voted it up, but I want to pick a nit with the mention of "your five senses". Thats Aristotelean mythology. We have many more than five, and so could you please edit this to just read "your senses"?

(Actually, since I'm posting this, I should mention I don't believe in qualia either, but that is a debate of an entirely different order).

To sate the curiousity of anyone uninclined to look for information themselves, other senses include: * Equilibrioception, via the inner ear, providing sensation of angular momentum and acceleration * Proprioception, feedback on the movement and position of the body. This is why you can close your eyes and touch your fingertips together. * Various internal signals, such as hunger * Pain, a distinct sensation that can be caused by various conditions * What is commonly regarded as the sense of "touch" can be separated into multiple distinct types, including heat, cold, and pressure. For a demonstration of the difference between heat and cold sensation, place small amounts of the chemicals menthol (from peppermint extract) and capsaicin (from chili peppers) in your mouth--the former triggers cold receptors, while the latter triggers heat (and pain) receptors. As an aside, there are also five distinct sensations of flavor, not the four that were commonly accepted until recently.
The above is a great list. Here are a couple more to add: Vision can also be divided into a modelling sense (what's out there) and a targetting sense (where is something). There are known cases of someone losing one of these without the other. (ie a totally 'blind' man being able to perfectly track a moving target with his pointing finger by 'guessing'.) As well, we have something called the 'General Chemical Sense' that alerts us to damage to mucus membranes, and is the thing that is complaining when you have the sensation of burning during excretion after you've had a spicy meal.
To further sate people's curiosity: the 5th is umami.
Yeah, I probably should have mentioned that. Also note that it basically means "tastiness" which is not false advertising. Umami is the flavor of glutamic acid (better known in its salt form as monosodium glutamate), found commonly in protein-heavy and aged or fermented foods, such as meat, cheese, yeast extract, fermented soybeans, and so on.

The view that shattering mysteries reduces their value is very much a result of religion trying to protect itself.

Yes, but this tendency to see warm fuzzies as depending on mystery is even deeper than religion. It's a common anti-intellectual tendency. Take, for example, the idea that attempting to scientifically understand phenomena like romantic love will "spoil the mystery."

In general, I've never seen understanding a phenomenon better get in the way of appreciating it. The only exception would be when you are trying to analytically figure ... (read more)

The main problem is viewing this warm fuzziness as a "mystery." This warm fuzziness, as an experience, is a reality. It's part of that set of things that doesn't go away no matter what you say or think about them.

I'm not sure I agree with this. How you feel about religion is very strongly driven by what you think about it. If you think it is the truth then religion is awesome and profound, if you think its a constructed mythology then probably not so much. I'd suggest even the very fact that it is a "mysterious truth", adds to the en... (read more)

but in the end the fact may remain that religious stories are better at generating them than any formulation of the truth is This is exactly right. The question isn't whether or not it's chemically possible for people to get their fuzzies from places other than religion - this is obviously true. The question is whether or not us getting them to do so is politically feasible. I think not, and seeing how there are many believers who live decent lives I'd rather spend my time cultivating the more cosmopolitan varietals.

The post on joy in the merely real seems apposite here.

  1. Calling what the "tolerate parts of religion" side values in this debate "warm, soft, fuzzies" should be considered rationalist taboo, if it isn't already. This is a way of diminishing the concerns of the other side by giving them a different name instead of providing reasons why those concerns are unimportant.

  2. We should all stop offering up Tolkien as great literature. He isn't. His characters are flat and the writing is overwrought and dull. Besides, his audience is niche where the Bible's really isn't. Use Shakespeare, Dostoevsky,

... (read more)

The position, as far as I can see, isn't that warm fuzziness is itself mysterious; it's that some mysterious phenomena cause warm fuzziness, possibly because they leave room for the imagination to fill in things more wonderful than the reality. We seem to mostly have run out of such things in the modern world, so maybe the solution is to create more things to be ignorant about.

I don't find mysteriousness to be a necessary feature of warm-fuzziness. The view from the top of a mountain, or the night sky on a cloudless night, or a cold beer on a warm day with good friends, none are particularly mysterious but all produce warm-fuzziness. I often hear the claim that mystery is an essential component of warm-fuzziness but I only hear this claim from people for whom something is still a mystery. I haven't really encountered anyone who claims to have lost any warm-fuzziness when they came to understand something that was previously mysterious. That's certainly not been my experience.
0Mike Bishop15y
There is definitely some warm fuzziness to be lost through understanding. Losing religion is the obvious example, but there are many more. For many people (even myself to a certain extent) dissecting a joke, or dwelling on the role of hormones in creating physical attraction, reduces certain warm fuzzies. Luckily, understanding also creates new warm fuzzies, but a marginal improvement in understanding does not, for everyone, always create net positive number of warm fuzzies - otherwise everyone would be a rationalist.
I think you're confusing the act of receiving information/understanding about an experience with the experience itself. Re: the joke example, I think that one would get tired of hearing a joke too many times, and that's what the dissection is equivalent to, because you keep hearing it in your head; but if you already get the joke, the dissection is not really adding to your understanding. If you didn't get the joke, you will probably receive a twinge of enjoyment at the moment when you finally do understand. If you don't understand a joke, I don't think you can get warm fuzzies from it. With hormones, again I think that being explicitly reminded of the role of hormones in physical attraction while experiencing physical attraction reduces warm fuzzies only because it's distracting you from the source of the warm fuzzies and making you feel self-conscious. On the other hand, knowing more about the role of hormones should not generally distract you from your physical attraction; instead you could use it to tada get more warm fuzzies.
Indeed, my wife and I have practiced for well over a decade how to get optimum endorphin release from casual contact. (For example, we've identified certain spots we can apply hand pressure to on the other person that create a sensation we call "recharging" -- a kind of relaxed energy.)
0Mike Bishop15y
I think you make an important distinction, but people sometimes act like gaining understanding will result in a long-term reduction in some warm fuzzies for them. They sometimes explicitly tell me they think this will happen. While I think people may underestimate the net warm fuzzies resulting from learning (i.e. they are biased), I'm confident that they are sometimes correct. The difficult question is deciding what we should do about this. Don't get me wrong, I'm still very committed to epistemic rationality and will try to sell people on its many virtues/benefits.
Certainly, people act like this, but I'm wondering whether it is actually true. First, I wouldn't want to dismiss that some people could be correct. I'm just trying to think up some examples where they actually are. Do you have some other examples you are thinking of?
I 'lost religion' at such a young age that it's arguable whether I ever really had it so I'll have to take your word for it that losing religion is an example. I don't feel I lack many of the things that people sometimes say they fear they will lose if they lose religion however. I think janos makes a good point that the hormones example you describe is more a case of allowing your thoughts to distract you rather than a problem of possessing knowledge. Romantic warm fuzzies can be disrupted just as effectively by thinking too much about mundane things like work or the day's chores as they can by thinking about the role of hormones in creating physical attraction.
I think there's also an intuitive (naive-realist) view that anything that produces a sufficient level of warm fuzzies must be mysterious: if an experience is strange, powerful, and wonderful, then its cause must be strange, powerful, and wonderful as well. (Think of the amount of magical nonsense said about love, for instance.) It seems plausible that religion exists in the first place largely because of this line of reasoning applied to 'mystical' experience by people who had no way to know better.

The view that shattering mysteries reduces their value is very much a result of religion trying to protect itself.

Or perhaps it's the result of this view sometimes being plainly true, as borne out by experience.

I've never been religious, and I've experienced firsthand that it's entirely possible for something to become less beautiful if you understand it better.

I listen to a fair number of Japanese songs. There are songs I have specifically not looked up translations for, because even though the song will still be beautiful either way, there's a unique ... (read more)

Frank's point got rather lost in all this. It seems to be quite simple: there's a warm fuzziness to life that science just doesn't seem to get, and some religious artwork touches on and stimulates this warm fuzziness, and hence is of value

I got the feeling that Eliezer was deliberately avoiding this point, or that he didn't understand it. Though, maybe not. I'd like to see a round three that focuses solely on this issue, with less random distractions. Frank was certainly guilty of distracting from this point by piling on lots of other, less relevant points.

Re: I'd like to see a round three that focuses solely on this issue, with less random distractions. Please, don't! Enough with all the religion! It is bad enough with Dawkins and Dennett - let's not encourage otherwise-sensible people to go on about the topic of archaic claptrap!