Talking Snakes: A Cautionary Tale

by Scott Alexander2 min read13th Mar 2009230 comments

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Absurdity HeuristicReligionUpdated Beliefs (examples of)Fallacies
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I particularly remember one scene from Bill Maher's "Religulous". I can't find the exact quote, but I will try to sum up his argument as best I remember.

Christians believe that sin is caused by a talking snake. They may have billions of believers, thousands of years of tradition behind them, and a vast literature of apologetics justifying their faith - but when all is said and done, they're adults who believe in a talking snake.

I have read of the absurdity heuristic. I know that it is not carte blanche to go around rejecting beliefs that seem silly. But I was still sympathetic to the talking snake argument. After all...a talking snake?

I changed my mind in a Cairo cafe, talking to a young Muslim woman. I let it slip during the conversation that I was an atheist, and she seemed genuinely curious why. You've all probably been in such a situation, and you probably know how hard it is to choose just one reason, but I'd been reading about Biblical contradictions at the time and I mentioned the myriad errors and atrocities and contradictions in all the Holy Books.

Her response? "Oh, thank goodness it's that. I was afraid you were one of those crazies who believed that monkeys transformed into humans."

I admitted that um, well, maybe I sorta kinda might in fact believe that.

It is hard for me to describe exactly the look of shock on her face, but I have no doubt that her horror was genuine. I may have been the first flesh-and-blood evolutionist she ever met. "But..." she looked at me as if I was an idiot. "Monkeys don't change into humans. What on Earth makes you think monkeys can change into humans?"

I admitted that the whole process was rather complicated. I suggested that it wasn't exactly a Optimus Prime-style transformation so much as a gradual change over eons and eons. I recommended a few books on evolution that might explain it better than I could.

She said that she respected me as a person but that quite frankly I could save my breath because there was no way any book could possibly convince her that monkeys have human babies or whatever sort of balderdash I was preaching. She accused me and other evolution believers of being too willing to accept absurdities, motivated by our atheism and our fear of the self-esteem hit we'd take by accepting Allah was greater than ourselves.

It is not clear to me that this woman did anything differently than Bill Maher. Both heard statements that sounded so crazy as to not even merit further argument. Both recognized that there was a large group of people who found these statements plausible and had written extensive literature justifying them. Both decided that the statements were so absurd as to not merit examining that literature more closely. Both came up with reasons why they could discount the large number of believers because those believers must be biased.

I post this as a cautionary tale as we discuss the logic or illogic of theism. I propose taking from it the following lessons:

- The absurdity heuristic doesn't work very well.

- Even on things that sound really, really absurd.

- If a large number of intelligent people believe something, it deserves your attention. After you've studied it on its own terms, then you have a right to reject it. You could still be wrong, though.

- Even if you can think of a good reason why people might be biased towards the silly idea, thus explaining it away, your good reason may still be false.

- If someone cannot explain why something is not stupid to you over twenty minutes at a cafe, that doesn't mean it's stupid. It just means it's complicated, or they're not very good at explaining things.

- There is no royal road.

(special note to those prone to fundamental attribution errors: I do not accept theism. I think theism is wrong. I think it can be demonstrated to be wrong on logical grounds. I think the nonexistence of talking snakes is evidence against theism and can be worked into a general argument against theism. I just don't think it's as easy as saying "talking snakes are silly, therefore theism is false." And I find it embarrassing when atheists say things like that, and then get called on it by intelligent religious people.)

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Consider: If all the rest of the religious framework were granted, would the talking snake be an additional problem? No. The talking snake is only absurd if you refuse to grant the rest of the religious framework. The fact that a snake is talking is not, of itself, the source of any additional problem - unless you were to argue that it fits the mode of a classic bias like minimal counterintuitiveness or thinking that "talking" is a simple feature that can easily be grafted on, etc. But the point is, the part where a talking snake is in this story, is, presuming the story's other premises, not the proper subject of the dispute.

The problem is the other premises, and notions like sin passed down through generations, or that the sin was contained in an easily accessible tree put right there in the Garden (trap much?), or the fact that a supernatural God is in the story - and so on and so on.

When you look at it from that perspective, then indeed, saying "Ha ha, a talking snake" is the exact mirror image of saying "Ha ha, a monkey birthed a human", because it takes refuge in absurdity instead of addressing the most important part of an argument as a whole.

6pwno12yDon't you think it's still useful to find contradictions within the religious framework in order to convince theists they are wrong? I know some converts who converted because the bible just "didn't make sense" and contained too many contradictions. Some people even convert to religion because the bible (or whatever holy text) "made so much sense." They think, "Well, I agree with Y, and since X implies Y, I will now believe X."
5Liron12yYou should attack the bad links in the causal chain that lead to absurd conclusions, not the conclusions themselves. So yes, it's worth attacking the bible's nonchalance about contradictions -- but don't bother dwelling on the contradictions themselves.

The contradictions are a proper point of attack, but only if they would be really, genuinely troublesome even granting the rest of the premises.

2jimmy12yAbsolutely. The main premise of 'magic' may be the ultimate root of the problem- the one that once you kill it, the problem completely dies- but if it is believed very strongly, it may be very hard to get someone to just change their mind. As Eliezer mentions in "no universally compelling arguments", the best reason not to believe something won't necessarily be the most compelling. We should pick arguments that are more likely to be compelling, and only attack the main issue once it's doable. Most people aren't ok with real contradictions in their beliefs. Trivial contradictions that don't change the main idea might be dismissed (eg "the bible is just a book of stories, but god actually exists"), but If someone thinks a>b>c>a, and the ordering is essential to the main point, they'll see this as an obvious problem, which can cause them to rethink things. Once you have them thinking, you've done the hard part (confident to unsure takes many bits of evidence. It only takes a few more until they're pretty sure in the other direction). If you want to win, attack first where they're most weak, not where they're most wrong.
5christopherj7yFunny you should mention magic. According to at least one [http://www.baylor.edu/mediacommunications/news.php?action=story&story=52815] study [http://online.wsj.com/article/SB122178219865054585.html], "traditional Christian religion greatly decreases credulity, as measured by beliefs in such things as dreams, Bigfoot, UFOs, haunted houses, communicating with the dead and astrology" and I'm pretty sure the same goes for magic. Now here's the funny thing:magic is attested in the Bible, eg in Exodus 7-8 where Egyptian magicians perform almost on par with Moses; and communicating with the dead is attested to in 1 Samuel 28, where King Saul talks to the spirit of Samuel; and prophetic dreams in almost every book in the Old Testament and some of the New; and fighting demonic possession played a key role in Jesus' ministry and also of His disciples after Him. But the people who most proclaim the Bible's truth, usually don't believe in these (especially the first two). Some of these people also claim that if any part of the Bible wasn't true, then the whole thing is worthless.

If I were talking to a Muslim (on this level) about evolution, my next questions would probably be: "Are you aware that humans give birth to deformed babies?" and "Do you think a monkey could give birth to a deformed baby that looks like a human baby?"

Do I think that a snake could produce sounds that can be interpreted as words? Well, yeah. "Can I eat this apple?" "Sssss..." "Sounded like yessss to me, let's eat."

2Strange76yParrots can talk; a parrot named Alex even accidentally learned how to spell out a word for emphasis when the listener didn't seem to be paying attention. Pre-curse, this "snake" wasn't crawling around on the ground. Maybe it was just a slightly cleverer species of parrot.
2elityre1yThat sounds awesome. Citation?

The use of absurdity seems more like a tool to enforce group norms than a means of conversion. That doesn't mean the beliefs aren't absurd, just that pointing out the absurdity of outsiders is common practice by in-group members. Most creationist-minded believers would use some similarly absurd way of describing evolution, with the group benefit of passing along "evolution is stupid" meme. That said, it is important to start to tease apart just how many other enforcement strategies are out there, as they are going to need to be dealt with one by one.

1FiftyTwo9yWhile it could have a social function a larger benefit to having an absurdity bias is in limiting the hypothesis space when considering a question to those worth investing cognitive energy in investigating. (Example: when considering the question 'who ate the cake' the hypothesises 'Alice,' 'Bob,' or 'Carol' would likely be worth investigating but 'The president of the united states' wouldn't be, and so shouldn't be investigated.)
-1Omegaile9yThe truth is that neither cristians believe in a talking snake nor evolutionists believe in humans coming from monkeys. That's just a straw man falacy [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Straw_man]. Cristians believe that's a metaphor and evolutionists believe they have common ancestors.
7ArisKatsaris9yI assure you that many Christians do believe the snake really talked. Whatever Christians you are personally familiar with don't comprise the entirety or even the majority of the Christian population of the world.
4Thomas9yIt is not an ordinary talking snake, it is a snake which was enabled to talk by God or Satan to transmit a message or something. Everything is very "spiritual" in this stories as seen by a believer. It is not a "common reality" it is an "elevated reality, when God still walked the Earth". Nobody believes that an ordinary snake could talk. But into a snake disguised Satan, could talk eloquently.
3Strange76yI cannot recall any instance of a claim in that format turning out to be correct.
1VAuroch7yIn the context of the Bible, without later interpretation, neither God nor Satan was directly involved with the snake.
6wedrifid9yDon't overgeneralise. Many Christians do believe Satan appeared in the form of a human snake. I know many of them. I also don't consider this to be an inferior epistemic position than pulling out 'metaphors' wherever it is convenient. For that matter many evolutionists do believe we came from monkeys, but only due to ignorance of the details history that they don't care enough to learn.
3johnlawrenceaspden8yA human snake? Is there an oxymoron heuristic? Also, surely the common ancestor of man and monkey must be something that could be reasonably described as a monkey. I can't imagine you can find many people who believe that humans are descended from the actual monkeys alive today.
3Rob Bensinger8yThe surface problem isn't that naive evolutionists think humans descended from (time-traveling?) extant monkeys. The surface problem is that they don't understand the difference between apes and monkeys, even though this is very easy to understand; and they don't understand that there has never been a common ancestor of all and only the monkeys, or that the common ancestor of monkeys and apes was neither a monkey nor an ape. But these are all, as you rightly note, nitpicky taxonomic details. Given the folk-blurriness between 'ape' and 'monkey,' and closely related groups, it's not a particularly serious error to misidentify the common ancestor of humans and monkeys as a monkey (or as an ape). The deep problem here is not an error of fact, but an error of strategy; the ignorance of the evolutionist is not only weakening his/her case should the creationist spend 5 minutes on Google, but also is causing him/her to sacrifice a prime teaching moment. This common misconception about monkeys/apes is a fantastic opportunity to correct a misconception (thus undermining the creationist's easy confidence in the most frequent soundbites) and springboard into an explanation of what evolution actually is, of the mechanisms and scope of common descent. There's also the very closely related error of presuming that evolution is 'directional,' thus that humans are 'more advanced' than their cousins, who have 'evolved less' and thus surely resemble the common ancestor more. In most respects and in most cases, this is misleading.
0MC_Escherichia4yThis fact though -- that monkeys are paraphyletic -- argues in favour of (not against) the view that the common ancestor of monkeys and apes was itself monkey-like... If you think about when the "ape traits" must have evolved, it would be after the new-world monkeys had already diverged away. The common ancestor of monkeys and apes wouldn't have had them, but must have had those traits common to both old and new-world monkeys. It itself has to be basically a monkey. (I drew out a phylogenetic tree for this but couldn't get it to format, alas...)

What the lady in Cairo regarded as absurd (a monkey having a human baby) has almost no relation to what educated people who believe in evolution actually believe. What Bill Mahers regarded as absurd (a talking snake) is exactly what many Christians actually believe. The two assertions of absurdity are therefore not alike in the way that you suggest they are.

I agree with your underlying point about the absurdity heuristic not working well, but do any of us not realize this already given what modern physics tells us of the universe we live in?

Many (most? all?) Christians believe the snake was really Satan, who took the form of a snake to trick Eve. Treating it as an ordinary snake that happened to be able to talk is probably as gross a misrepresentation as the lady's misrepresentation of evolution.

"Many (most? all?) Christians believe the snake was really Satan,"

Without meaning to nitpick, what percentage of people who call themselves Christians do you think actually believe this? I'm pretty sure most of my Christian friends don't believe that any of Genesis is literally true. They probably also don't believe that a man can survive for 3 days in the belly of a whale, or that donkeys talk (Numbers 22: 26-30). I'm not really sure how this is relevant here, except that maybe I'm trying to say that a talking snake is just so damned absurd that even people who say they believe it don't actually believe it.

"I'm pretty sure most of my Christian friends don't believe that any of Genesis is literally true"

Have you asked them? Probably not, it's considered rude to ask christians questions like that, isn't it? (which is no doubt one reason why religious beliefs are able persist)

But if you did ask them you might be surprised by the answer.

Actually I suspect you are probably somewhat right: they don't beleive genesis literally. However I suspect they don't disbelieve it, either.

I actually don't think religious belief has much to to with doctrine, and I don't thmink many western christians ever actually sit down to assess exactly 'what' they believe, and what they don't. Religion isn't about believing silly things, it's primarily about belonging. Belinging to a group that at a social everyday level is mostly harmless, and normally well intentioned.

5Zubon8yAbout a third [http://www.gallup.com/poll/148427/say-bible-literally.aspx] of Americans believe "the Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally," explicitly contrasted with "the Bible is the inspired word of God but not everything in it should be taken literally." Your friends are probably not a representative sample of Americans, and even then, a third is a minority, but it is a rather large minority. I know people in this category. The next question is whether they really believe it or just believe in belief. If you press those people, will they bite the bullet and accept talking serpents and donkeys, surviving in whales, and trumpet blasts knocking down city walls? Yes, some of them really will, and there are certainly communities where this remains a majority belief.
-3taryneast9yEven if they don't believe in all that, they all still believe in a giant, invisible person that watches them when they do naughty things and talks to them telepathically in their head...
-1johnlawrenceaspden8ywho lives on a cloud, and loves them so much that he will set fire to them for all time if the things are too naughty, and whose chosen people (a) are someone else, and (b) haven't had the best couple of millennia.
0MugaSofer8y,':-\
4FeepingCreature8yThere is of course zero evidence in the Bible for that point of view, and it contradicts itself internally, even beyond what would be normal given the source. Going strictly by Genesis, the talking snake is really, honestly, just a talking snake. Satan isn't even mentioned until much later.
4johnlawrenceaspden8yA talking snake that isn't Satan? Don't be absurd.
2Kawoomba8ySince Satan does not exist, any talking snake you come across cannot be Satan. Q.E.D. and also, Q.E.F.
1MugaSofer8yPretty sure that was sarcasm.
3deathpigeon8yIt's not actually important for the purposes of this discussion what the Bible says or not. What's important is what people believe. If many Christians believe the snake was Satan, then it doesn't matter what the Bible actually says when we discuss whether or not their beliefs are true, absurd, or, in some way, ridiculous. In the same way, it doesn't actually matter, for the purposes of this discussion, what evolution actually says, but, rather, what people who believe in evolution believe it says.
0BerryPick68yIt does matter what the Bible says or not iff the same people who claim to believe the snake was Satan also believe the Bible is truth, since this would entail a contradiction.
1deathpigeon8yThat's a good point, but, in that case, we should be making the judgement that they're holding contradictory beliefs for believing the snake is Satan and the Bible is true, rather than make the judgement that they're believing the ridiculous claim that there once was a talking snake.
4anonym12yI didn't mean to imply that the snake wasn't Satan or that it was an ordinary snake. Obviously that is what probably all Christians believe, and that's what Mahers believes Christians believe. But it doesn't make it any less absurd to say a snake talked by explaining that it was actually a supernatural personification of evil that temporarily became a snake. That's just piling absurdity on top of absurdity. And like I said, the relation between what Christians believe and a snake talking is very direct, regardless of whether the snake was Satan, while the Cairo lady's beliefs have almost no relation to what people who believe in evolution believe. All I'm saying is that you could make your point much better by finding a stronger parallel.
1brainoil7yI don't know what actual Christians believe, but how could this be when god cursed that the snake would have to crawl on its belly for the rest of its days ("on your belly you shall go"), and yet later in the New Testament Satan walks with Jesus on earth to tempt him to idolatry with the offer of the kingdoms? Besides, if it's Satan, why punish snakes instead? I haven't talked about this with an actual Christian, but it seems to me that an erudite Christian won't hold this view that the snake was Satan, especially when you can get rid of the contradiction by saying the snake was not Satan.
5ialdabaoth7yActual response I got as a child in Sunday school, when I pointed out this and various other weirdnesses: "God is more powerful than human logic. Just because something seems like a contradiction to you, doesn't mean it's a contradiction if God does it."
1Nornagest7yThat brings up some interesting questions about other biblical statements that might be considered important from a religious perspective... within the scope of our flawed, human logic, of course.
0brainoil7yDidn't think about that. But this actually makes a lot of sense. This is the only way you can believe in those things. You completely ignore reason and take it all on faith.
5ialdabaoth7yFor me, though, it was worse than that - how do you "take on faith" a concept that isn't even rationally coherent? That was always my question - what exactly is it that I'm supposed to be believing? Because if something doesn't make sense, then I don't understand it; and if I don't understand it, how am I supposed to really "believe" it? And when people respond with "well you just have to have faith", my response was always "yes, but faith in WHAT?" / "Faith in God." / "Yes, but what do you mean by God?" "You don't have to understand to believe" never, ever, ever made coherent sense to me.
1Pentashagon7yDo you believe in both general relativity and QCD? Do you understand the Universe? Until the map is indistinguishable from the territory we will have incoherent beliefs about things that we don't fully understand. It's the degree of confidence in our beliefs that matters. GR and QCD are incoherent, but we can have extremely high confidence in our beliefs about practical things using those theories. Black holes and dark energy less so.
0ArisKatsaris7yMy highschool theologist said that "a demon" (not necessarily Lucifer or any demon whose name is known) spoke through the snake. So I imagine there are a lot of open ways to resolve the contradiction: * Perhaps the snake is punished for allowing the demon to control it in some manner. * Perhaps only the particular demon is punished in this manner, not the whole of demonkind including the one that later tempted Jesus. * Perhaps the description of the curse/prediction is metaphorical, so "on your belly you shall go" is a metaphor of the demon living a filthy existence or something. After all "And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel" is supposed to be metaphorical of the Crucifixion and Resurrection. etc, etc.
7AspiringRationalist9yThis suggests an improved absurdity heuristic: if somebody expresses a belief that seems absurd, first check whether they actually believe what you think they do. It might not be as absurd once you know what they actually believe. They might really believe in a literal talking snake, but have you really lost much by giving the (temporary) benefit of the doubt?

I agree with your point about the absurdity heuristic.

However, I'm not sure that the three following points are relevant to the case of theism:

  • If a large number of intelligent people believe something, it deserves your attention. After you've studied it on its own terms, then you have a right to reject it. You could still be wrong, though.

  • Even if you can think of a good reason why people might be biased towards the silly idea, thus explaining it away, your good reason may still be false.

  • If someone cannot explain why something is not stupid to you o

... (read more)
7jimmy12yIn general, I think taking Yvain's advice is probably better than not. If the group of (otherwise) intelligent people is a group of anosognosiacs that tell you that they aren't disabled, then their common bias is probably sufficient to dismiss them. In most cases, however, we don't have the line by line code that produces bad answers. If you can't look under the hood and say "The car doesn't work because part x is doing y instead of z", but rather "I'm not sure exactly how this thing is supposed to work, but something is leaking", then you can't be sure it isn't going to do something right, even if its performance is suboptimal. There could be a hint of rationality buried in the muck, and in that case, they might manage to get it right. One example of this is the "magical collapse" deal in QM. It may sound absurd (because it is), but the physicists talking about it aren't stupid, and will still manage to give correct predictions. If you dismissed it as "entirely irrational" before looking at the evidence, you'd be stuck with classical physics. If you then consider the fact that people tend to exaggerate other peoples biases (it's always the other guy that is biased, right?), the case for at least putting some thought into it gets stronger.
4MichaelHoward12yWhich alternative seems more absurd to you can depend a lot on what else you know or think you know. Many worlds seemed far more absurd to me than collapse until someone properly explained [http://www.overcomingbias.com/2008/06/the-quantum-phy.html] it to me.
1RobinZ11y(months later...) Another point is that you won't actually encounter all that many obviously-false [http://lesswrong.com/lw/1f4/less_wrong_qa_with_eliezer_yudkowsky_ask_your/19d0] beliefs widely held by intelligent people. Taking the effort to check out the ones you do encounter shouldn't be an onerous effort.

"The absurdity heuristic doesn't work very well."

  • indeed. It even seems that it is an inconsistent heuristic. The existence of an omnipotent God sounds only finitely absurd. But once you grant the existence of said God, any event, no matter how absurd, becomes plausible (for example, a talking snake). Just add the explanation "god wanted it to happen, so it happened".

But "There exists a talking snake" is strictly more likely to be true than "There exists a talking snake, and it was created by The God Yahweh".

FTW... (read more)

2prase12yI don't see the inconsistency. You obtain the conjunction fallacy only if omnipotent God is less absurd than talking snake. I think that such position is absurd.

Making up absurd explanations for the talking snake goes against the direction of your post, but I wanted to share this one: a remote control snake the owner can talk through is the sort of thing that could be a children's toy. Santa Claus gave one to Satan, who used it for mischief.

"What on Earth makes you think monkeys can change into humans?"

It seems - based upon personal experience - that the difference between the rational and the irrational is that the rational at least attempts to present a cogent answer to such questions in a way that actually answers the question; the irrational just gets mad at you for asking.

2EphemeralNight6yI'm wondering if this is the kind of confusion that can be cleared up by tabooing the right words. I believe it can be taken as obvious that the image in the muslim woman's head upon hearing the phrase "monkey's transformed into humans" isn't at all similar to the image in the mind of someone who understands evolution, as even to my ear it comes across as, at best, misleading. Thus my response would be more along the lines of: I don't believe monkeys can change into humans. I believe that both monkeys and humans belong to a larger category of creatures called apes, and it seems very suspicious to me that if a hypothetical omnipotent being created humans in His image, that the image would be just another species of ape rather than anything unique. With greater time and preparation, I don't think it would be too hard to demonstrate how a human body and a chimp body are almost the same machine, just shaped a little different. In the 'explain in twenty minutes' scenario, I think the critical insight is scope insensitivity. It is legitimately difficult to imagine the number of generations involved. You'd have to describe a family tree, point out how the less distance up you need to go to find a common ancestor, the more similar any two individuals will look, and then... zoom out, massively. Even if your non-evolutionist then believes that family tree will eventually lead back to Adam and Eve or whoever, rather than connecting to the animal kindgom once you go far enough back, it moves the competing suppositions out of the realm of absurdity and creates an actual disagreement rather than merely a confusion. It is hard to argue that magic was not involved in the origin of the human species when the other person cannot conceive of the possibility that humans could even exist or function without magic being involved. And that is not a trivial thing. Even many of today's educated people, who pay lip-service to the idea that humans are biology and nothing else, still bel
1SeanMCoincon6yAgreed on all points; I've found it interesting in my conversations with anti-evolutionists that even doing the work of dispelling the straw man argument - "monkeys turning into humans", "why are there still monkeys", etc. - doesn't seem to change even their conception of the evolution argument; they STILL think all the science and reason in the world can be summarized as "monkeys turned into humans". Their degree of investment in opposing that argument may be too great for additional rationality to crack. When/if that becomes apparent, I've found the more-effective-yet-less-satisfying counter to be something along the lines of: "America grew out of England, yet England's still a country.". Not the most accurate metaphor, granted... but it seems to back their confidence level down from outright absoluteness. Plus, it's kinda fun to see their faces turn red. Whoever coined "Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me." must not have been a rationalist amongst children.
0[anonymous]6yNitpick: humans are a subgroup of apes, apes are a subgroup of EDIT simians, and simians are a subgroup of primates; “monkey” refers to non-ape simians specifically and “ape” is often colloquially used to refer to non-human apes specifically, whereas I can't remember anyone using “primate” to exclude humans (and BTW, I can't recall “mammal” nor “vertebrate” ever being used to exclude humans either whereas “animal” often is; colloquial English¹ is weird). -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- 1. BTW, in Italian there's no common single word for apes EDIT nor one for monkeys, the word for “simian” basically never includes humans, whereas the same things I've said about English words for “primate”, “mammal”, “vertebrate” and “animal” apply.
1Nornagest6yThat's not how I learned it, nor how Wikipedia describes it. I understand "monkey" as a term describing a polyphyletic grouping consisting of the Old World monkeys (a family-level group, the Cercopithecidae) and the New World monkeys (five families), but not including the apes. Originally I expect the presence of a tail would have been the distinguishing factor. "Simian" is the word for both, while "primate" also includes lemurs, tarsiers, and so forth. (Colloquially, "ape" is often taken to exclude humans, but that's understood to be technically wrong by anyone that accepts evolution.)
2Jiro6yWhatever. If you reply "well, humans aren't really descended from monkeys, they're descended from _", you're just being pedantic. To an average person, being descended from "apes" or "non-human apes" or "non-human monkeys", or "monkey-like creatures not exactly like any existing monkey", or any other "correction" will have pretty much the same connotations as and be objectionable in exactly the same way as and to exactly the same extent as, being descended from monkeys. It's like someone complaining that all the computers in his house were stolen, and replying "well, in fact, your microwave oven contains a computer, so it's not really true that all the computers in your house were stolen".
1Nornagest6ySure. Outside of a biology class I wouldn't nitpick someone saying "humans are descended from monkeys"; it might be wrong by the formal definitions of those groups, but it's not wrong in any way that the Muslim woman in the ancestor will care about, and if the last common ancestor of H. sapiens and, say, a spider monkey were alive today it'd probably be called a monkey in English. (Not my downvote, by the way.)
0[anonymous]6yOK. I was under the impression that in serious contexts everyone used monophyletic definitions of nearly everything by now, but it looks like “monkey” has retained the traditional meaning because there already is an unambiguous non-unwieldy word “simian” for the monophyletic meaning. I'm editing the grandparent accordingly. So, humans are descended from monkeys but are not themselves monkeys (and they are descended from fish but are not themselves fish, for that matter), but “both monkeys and humans belong to a larger category of creatures called apes” is still wrong (and even if you s/apes/simians/ it's still irrelevant unless you also say that said category is monophyletic or otherwise carves reality at some relevant joint, both chickens and humans belong to a larger category of creatures called bipeds, yadda yadda yadda).

Anything sufficiently beyond the bounds of what you've accepted as normal is 'absurd'. Rejecting a point, an argument, or a conclusion on the grounds that it's absurd is unreasonable. It is, in essence, refusing to consider the possibility of something on the grounds that you don't already affirm it.

7mark_spottswood12yNot necessarily. The vast majority of propositions are false. Most of them are obviously false; we don't need to spend much mental energy to reject the hypothesis that "Barack Obama is a wooly mammoth," or "the moon is made of butternut squash." "Absurd" is a useful label for statements that we can reject with minimal mental effort. And it makes sense that we refuse to consider most such statements; our mental time and energy is very limited, and if we want to live productive lives, we have to focus on things that have some decent probability of being true. The problem is not denominating certain things as absurd, it is rejecting claims that we have reason to take more seriously. Both evolution and Christianity are believed by large enough communities that we should not reject either claim as "absurd." Rather, when many people believe something, we should attend to the best arguments in favor of those beliefs before we decide whether we disagree.
3thomblake12yBut you don't reject the hypothesis that "Barack Obama is a wooly mammoth" because it's absurd - nobody has seriously presented it. If someone had a reason to seriously present it, then I'd not dismiss it out of hand - if only because I was interested enough to hear it in the first place, so would want to see if the speaker was making a clever joke, or perhaps needed immediate medical care. As EY might say, noticing a hypothesis is unlikely enough in the first place that you should probably pay some attention to it, if the speaker was one of the people you listen to. cf. Einstein's Arrogance [http://www.overcomingbias.com/2007/09/einsteins-arrog.html]
1flexive5yFunny thing is that someone actually did. [https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lenin_was_a_mushroom]
1brainoil7yDavid Icke thinks Barack Obama and many other prominent politicians are reptiles and that there's a reptilian conspiracy going on. He has written many books about this, and seems to take all of that pretty seriously. Should I be reading his books, instead of something that is more likely to be true?
1mark_spottswood12yImagining that someone "had a reason to seriously present" to Obama-Mammoth hypothesis is to make the hypothesis non-absurd. If there is real evidence in favor of the hypothesis, than it is obviously worth considering. But that is just to fight the example; it doesn't tell us much about the actual line between absurd claims and claims that are worth considering. In the world we actually inhabit, an individual who believed that they had good reasons to think that the president was an extinct quadruped would obviously be suffering from a thought disorder. It might be interesting to listen to such a person talk (or to hear a joke that begins with the O-M Hypo), but that doesn't mean that the claim is worth considering seriously.
1[anonymous]12y"If someone had a reason to seriously present it, then I'd not dismiss it out of hand " But they don't. Calling something "absurd" doesn't mean "I have so much evidence to the contrary that I'm not going to even consider any evidence". It seems more like a synonym of "there is no evidence for that, and the possibility space is large"
0jimmy12y"If someone had a reason to seriously present it, then I'd not dismiss it out of hand" It's important to not that no one has. You can't update on fictitious evidence. In the (unlikely) case that something unprobable ends up with strong evidence backing it, then it becomes probable whether or not it was called "absurd". Until then, we dismiss it because it's absurd.
1CynicalOptimist5yI think that absurdity, in this sense, is just an example of Occam's Razor / Bayesian rationalty in practice. If something has a low prior, and we've no evidence that would make us raise our probability estimates, then we should believe that the idea probably isn't true. I've always assumed that the absurdity bias was a tendency to do something slightly different. In this context, absurdity is a measure of how closely an idea conforms to our usual experiences. It's a measure of how plausible an idea feels to our gut. By this definition, absurdity is being used as a proxy for "low probability estimate, rationally assigned". It's often a good proxy, but not always. Or perhaps another way to put it: when evidence seems to point to an extremely unlikely conclusion, we tend to doubt the accuracy of the evidence. And the absurdity bias is a tendency to doubt the evidence more thoroughly than ideal rationality would demand. (Admission: I've noticed that I've had some trouble defining the bias, and now I'm considering the possibility that "absurdity bias" is a less useful concept than I thought it was).
1jimmy12yI agree, and think that you explained it well, but I would personally go back to calling christianity absurd after looking into it and finding no evidence. If you look, and find no evidence, what seperates christianity from "Barack Obama is a wooly mammoth"?
8mark_spottswood12yChristianity is false, but it is harder to falsify it then it is to show that Barrack Obama is not a non-sapient extinct mammal. I can prove the second false to a five-year-old of average intelligence by showing a picture of Obama and an artist's rendition of a mammoth. It would take some time to explain to the same five-year-old child why Christianity does not make sense as a description of the world. This difference—that while both claims are false, one claim is much more obviously false than the other—explains why Christianity has many adherents but the Obama-Mammoth hypothesis does not. And we can usually infer from the fact that many people believe a proposition that it is not transparently false, making it more reasonable to investigate a bit before rejecting it.

She sounds like someone who has never seen a monkey.

But more seriously, given that she's never met a creationist, it's unlikely that she's ever actually read anything at all about it, or heard a cogent argument. On the contrary, you (and probably a lot of other atheists in the world) are comparatively very knowledgeable about religions, have probably read about as much of the Bible/Koran/Torah/etc. as most believers, and likely even have parents who believe in a god. Being an atheist in many societies requires a sort of active choice – one that most children of believers don't take.

If there were books on the science (or even theology) of talking snakes, I'd be glad to read them.

" I think theism is wrong. "

I believe you are likely to be right.

"I think it can be demonstrated to be wrong on logical grounds."

I'm really intrigued. How?

8Scott Alexander12yUh oh. http://www.overcomingbias.com/2007/08/religions-claim.html [http://www.overcomingbias.com/2007/08/religions-claim.html] and http://yudkowsky.net/rational/technical [http://yudkowsky.net/rational/technical] , but a full argument would probably take forever, be inappropriate for this site, and have me answering religious objections until the cows came home. Logical was probably not as good a word as "rational" here. If saying "on rational grounds" makes more sense than "on logical grounds", feel free to replace it. If you're really really really interested, send me your email and I'll try to sketch out some thoughts, but beyond what's in the two links above I doubt anything I say will be that much more exciting than anything you've heard atheists say before.
2billswift12yThere is literally no way anyone is going to be able to do this in the limitations of a blog - if you can get through Michael Martin's "Atheism: A Philosophical Justification" you'll know the answer. Dawkin's "The God Belief" is shorter and easier because he uses evidence to shorten the strictly logical disproofs philosophers use. An older and less complete, but more readable, philosophical disproof is George H Smith's "Atheism: The Case Against God". There are others, but of the ones I've read these two are the best and the most accessible, respectively.
2Nick_Novitski12y"The God Belief"? Is that a freudian slip [http://books.google.com/books?id=W8QnAQAACAAJ]?

Not all theists believe in 'talking snakes'.
The non-existence of 'talking snakes' as an argument against theism would be a 'strawman'.

There seems a tacit assumption here that all people who read the bible believe it is to be taken literally. Now I'm not stating my own religious views or lack thereof here, but it seems to me that this "talking snake" approach fails on entirely other grounds... namely, that it assumes that the "talking snake" story is not an allegory or metaphor. These are very old stories, told in a very poetic voice, and to take them literally is certainly absurd... It seems to me that Maher joins the absurdity by assuming the premise that "all t... (read more)

3CynicalOptimist5yI think this just underscores the original post's point. The lesson here isn't that Christians are probably right or that Christians are probably wrong. The lesson here is that you can go very wrong by relying on the absurdity heuristic. And that that's true even when the claim seems really absurd. Let's take a hypothetical atheist who really does think that all Christians believe in the literal word of the Bible. This atheist might reject the whole of Christianity because of the absurdity of talking snakes. Having rejected the entire school of thought that all of Christianity represents, he never has the opportunity to find out that he was wrong (about all Christians taking the Bible literally). Therefore be never realises that he had flawed reasons for rejecting religion. The woman in the story has a similarly inaccurate understanding of what (many) evolutionists believe. The flawed understanding is part of the issue. This bias applies to people who reject an idea on the grounds that it seems absurd, but their assessment of 'absurdity' is based on their limited, probably inaccurate, understanding of the topic.
1Wes_W6yThis is, roughly, an accusation of a Weak Man fallacy [http://slatestarcodex.com/2014/05/12/weak-men-are-superweapons/]: Note that this was also written by Yvain, and is the #2 hit on Google for "weak man fallacy". I think it's fair to say he popularized the concept of the Weak Man as a fallacy around here. Furthermore, he's the only person I can think of offhand who frequently gets accused of being too charitable to his opponents. So, as far as the author's original intent (although not necessarily everyone else's reading of the essay, death of the author and all that), I feel like he gets the benefit of the doubt here. I, for one, will happily disclaim that a large fraction of Christians do not accept the Bible as literal. Meanwhile, although certainly there are many Christians who would say the story of Adam and Eve and the snake and the tree is not literally true, I don't think it's unfair to claim that some significant fraction do believe it's literally true - after all, almost half the country [http://www.gallup.com/poll/155003/Hold-Creationist-View-Human-Origins.aspx] rejects evolution as the origin of human life, which is a referendum on the literal truth of another part of the same story. The fall of Adam and Eve is important to the Christian ideas of salvation and original sin [https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=rom%205:12-21&version=NIV], which makes some Christians understandably reluctant to reject it. From a certain perspective, denying the literal truth of the story is equivalent to rejecting a central tenet of Christian thought. Edit: Of course, some also believe that the Fall is in some sense literally true, while the snake/tree or other fantastical elements are allegorical; there are more than just two schools of thought here.
1Jiro6yYou have more certainty than I do. It could have been meant literally at some point, and the claim "it is there only as a metaphor" could have been inserted afterwards. If it traces back to a pre-Christian creation myth that got to be part of the Bible as an accident of history, it probably was meant literally at some point, and not just in a "this weird sect takes it literally" way, but in how it was generally understood. Furthermore, there are other passages in the Bible that are not taken literally now, but were taken literally recently enough for that to have happened within recorded history. People only began to say they shouldn't be taken literally when taking them literally became embarrassing.
0hairyfigment4yReply to an old comment about literalism: Yes, but every version of the Torah we have contains parts from different, incompatible versions of the story. The Redactor who put them together had a clear preference (I think) for the Priestly text, but was willing to include stories that contradicted it (at least as a political compromise).

"Haha, no, of course I don't believe in monkeys transforming into humans! That'd never work. I just think they diverged from a common ancestor, many hundreds of thousands of years ago. Surely you're aware of the differences between, say, sunni and shia islam, despite both believing that all the same prophets said all the same things, and splitting only a few hundred years back? To say nothing of the other Abrahamic religions.

Think of a living organism as being like a city, with cells like individual households, each keeping their own copy of DNA scrip... (read more)

As a previous poster has said, the absurdity heuristic works very well indeed - if something seems absurd to me, I need a lot of evidence before I'll believe it. As Hume said:

"no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish."

If someone claims that a talking snake is the reason for every bad thing that anyone has ever done, they're going to have to provide some evidence that this is the case. If they claim that peop... (read more)

2Nick_Novitski12yI think that my bias towards our being related to monkeys is due to the meanings I invest in "monkey" and "human" as not being greatly dissimilar. On the other hand, if I had already accepted the existence and human-exclusiveness of a soul, and/or a supernatural account of the world's origin that afforded special primacy to humans as distinct from animals, then clearly I would think relations that crossed these distinct boundaries of type were too absurd to consider. Also, another limitation on the heuristic might be, as you suggest, weighing the value of the time that it would take to investigate the proposition being examined; I'm more likely to pause and engage in a discussion of my beliefs when I'm relaxing in my leather armchair with a snifter of brandy than while I'm changing trains on the way to work.

I just don't think it's as easy as saying "talking snakes are silly, therefore theism is false." And I find it embarrassing when >atheists say things like that, and then get called on it by intelligent religious people.

Sure, there is some embarrasment that others may not be particularly good at communicating, and thus saying something like that is just preaching to the choir, but won't reach the theist.

But, I do not find anything intellectually wrong with the argument, so what one is being called out on is being a bad propagandist, meme-gen... (read more)

0Jiro5yWhy can't a theist say something that is false?
0CarlJ5yOf course theists can say false statements, I'm not claiming that. I'm trying to come with an explanation of why some theists don't accept a certain form of argument. My explanation is that the theists are embarrassed to join someone who only points out a weak argument that their beliefs are silly. They do not make the argument that the "Talking Snakes"-argument is invalid, only that it is not rhetorical.
0CCC5yThe point of the original cautionary tale suggests that the argument "talking snakes cannot exist, thus Christianity is false" is as valid and as persuasive as the argument "monkeys cannot give birth to humans, thus evolution is false". In both cases, it's an argument strong enough to convince only those who are already convinced that the argument's conclusion is most likely correct; and in both cases, it shows that the arguer fundamentally misunderstands the position he is arguing against.
0CarlJ5yHow do you misunderstand christianity if you say to people: "There is no evidence of any talking snakes, so it's best to reject any ideas that hinges on there existing talking snakes"? Again, I'm not saying that this is usually a good argument. I'm saying that those who make it present a logically valid case (which is not the case with the monkey-birthing-human-argument) and that those who not accept it, but believe it to be correct, does so because they feel it isn't enough to convince others in their group that it is a good enough argument. I'm also trying to make a distinction between "culturally silly" and "scientifically silly". Talking snakes are scientifically silly and sometimes culturally silly.
2CCC5yThe misunderstanding is that Christianity doesn't hinge on the existence of talking snakes, any more than evolution hinges on monkeys giving birth to humans. The error in logic is the same in both arguments.
1CarlJ5yWhy doesn't Christianity hinge on their being talking snakes? The snake is part of their origin story, a core element in their belief system. Without it, what happens to original sin? And you will also have to question if not everything else in the bible is also just stories. If it's not the revealed truth of God, why should any of the other stories be real - such as the ones about how Jesus was god's son? And, if I am wrong in that Christianity doesn't need that particular story to be true, then there is still a weaker form of the argument. Namely that a large percentage of christians believe in this story, and two hundred years ago I'd guess almost every christian believed in it, but you cannot find any leading evolutionist who claims that monkeys gave birth to humans.
4TimS5yUltimately, outsiders cannot define the content or centrality of parts of a belief system. If believers say it is a metaphor, then it is a metaphor. In other words, if believers retreat empirically to the point of invisible dragons [http://lesswrong.com/lw/i4/belief_in_belief/], you can't stop them. Invisible dragons aren't incoherent, they are just boring. That large sub-groups of Christians believe something empirically false does not disprove Christianity as a whole, especially since there is widespread disagreement as to who is a "true" Christian. Citation needed. You sound overconfident here.
1CarlJ5yI meant that the origin story is a core element in their belief system, which is evident from every major christian religion has some teachings on this story [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fall_of_man]. If believers actually retreated to the position of invisible dragons, they would actually have to think about the arguments against the normal "proofs" that there is a god: "The bible, an infallible book without contradiction, says so". And, if most christians came to say that their story is absolutely non-empirically testable, they would have to disown other parts: the miracles of jesus and god, the flood, the parting of the red sea, and anything else that is testable. I didn't say it would disprove christianity - I said it was a weaker form of the argument: there is an asymmetry between the beliefs of christians and evolutionists. But, most christians seem to believe that there is magic in this world (thanks to god). Sure, if they didn't believe it, they could still call themselves christians, but that type of christianity would probably not get many followers.
0Alia1d5yI would say CarlJ is right about general Christian belief in the past from Historical Theology by Gregg R. Allison For how this would apply to the snake in the garden see this: Jamieson [http://www.ccel.org/ccel/jamieson/jfb.x.i.iii.html] And also correct that the doctrine is important to many Christians today from Systematic Theology by Wayne Grudem So I think a successful attack on this point would be significant. But I think Eliezer is correct there isn't extra improbability in the snake than in other elements of the creation story. I don't think most people would find absurd the possibility that an engineer could build a snake like robot that you could use a radio link to speak through, so, given the creation of entire planets and all the plant and animal life, someone talking through a snake in not an additional stretch. But I think Yvain is getting at something additional here. The reason the snake in particular seems absurd is that talking animals pattern match to things like Kipling's Just So Stories and Aesop's Fables. But that connection is in the map, not the territory. Using that as your leading argument against Christianity makes it sound like you've used a lazy and flawed heuristic to dismiss the religion, rather than actually considered it rationally and found it wanting.
2CarlJ5yThank you for the source! (I'd upvote but have a negative score.) If you interpret the story as plausibly as possible, then sure, the talking snake isn't that much different from a technologically superior species that created a big bang, terraformed the earth, implanted it with different animals (and placed misleading signs of an earlier race of animals and plants genetically related to the ones existing), and then created humans in a specially placed area where the trees and animals were micromanaged to suit the humans needs. All within the realm of the possible. But, the usual story isn't that it was created by technological means, but by supernatural means. God is supposed to have created the world from some magical ability. So, to criticize the christian story is to criticize it as being magical. And if one finds it difficult to believe one part of that story, then all parts should be equally contested. Regarding Yvain's point - I think it is true that one could just associate "stories about talking animals" with "other stories about animals that everyone knows are patently false" and then not believe in the first story as well. But, it is not just in the mind's map of the world that this connection occurs, because the second story is connected to the world. That is, when one things about Aesop's Fables you know (though not always consciously) that these stories are false. So, to trigger the mind to establish a connection between Eden and Aesop, the mind makes the connection that "Stories that people believe are false", but the mind has good arguments to not believe in Aesop's fables, because there aren't any talking animals, and if that idea is part of knocking down Eden, then it is a fully rational way to dismiss Christianity. Definitely not thorough, and, again, it's maybe not a reliable way of convincing others.
1Alia1d5yBiologically speaking humans are animals and we talk. And since evolution resulted in one type of animal that talks couldn't it result in others, maybe even other that have since gone extinct? So there has to be an additional reason to dismiss the story other than talking animals being rationally impossible. You mention that the problem is the "magical" causation, which you see as a synonym for supernatural, whereas in Christian Theology it is closer to an antonym. So let me tell you a story I made up: Thahg and Zog are aliens in a faraway solar system study species of other planets. One day Thahg shows a pocket watch to Zog and says "Look, I think a human made this." Zog says, "What's a human?" "A human is a featherless biped from Earth" Zog thinks about what animals come from earth and the only one he can think of is a chicken. He laughs and says, "You think a plucked chicken made that? Boy, are you nuts!" And of course Thahg would then look at Zog like he was nuts, because the absurdity Zog is seeing is coming from Zog's own lack of appropriate reference categories rather than an actual problem with Thahg's conjecture. For another example suppose the Muslim woman Yvain was talking to had said "I don't believe that evolution could work because alleles that sweep through populations more often then not reduce the kolmogorov complexity of the genes' effect on phenotype." Yvain may still think she is just as wrong, but she has demonstrated intellectual engagement with the subject rather then just demonstrating she had no mental concept for genetic change over time, like the 'monkeys give birth to humans' objection demonstrates. So the problem is saying that talking snakes are magical and therefore ridiculous sound more like "My mental concepts are too limited to comprehend your explanation" than like "I understood your explanation and it has X, Y and Z logical problems."
4gjm5yI think there are two separate questions here. First: does saying "hahaha, these guys believe in talking snakes, how ridiculous" sound like it demonstrates a lack of understanding and engagement? I think the answer to that is clearly yes, at least if you say it to thoughtful people with some understanding of this stuff. (But maybe not if you say it to people who are already convinced or to people who haven't given serious thought to these questions at all; so maybe Maher was preaching to the choir[1] and/or trying to shock unthinking believers into questioning their beliefs for the first time.) [1] A curious phrase, that. Some Christian churches -- I'm thinking e.g. of Anglican cathedrals and Oxbridge college chapels, where the music is a Big Deal -- have quite a lot of people in their choirs who are there only for the music and might be perfectly reasonable targets for preaching. Second: does saying "hahaha, these guys believe in talking snakes, how ridiculous" actually demonstrate a lack of understanding and engagement? I think it clearly does in some cases (and suspect Bill Maher is one), but I think (1) there really is an argument against (some versions of) Christianity based on the silliness of believing in talking snakes, and (2) some (rude) people may choose to express it in simple in-yer-face terms even though they're capable of making a more sophisticated version that isn't so liable to look like lack of understanding and engagement. The sophisticated version I have in mind, which I've sketched elsewhere in this thread, goes something like this. * The story in Genesis 3 doesn't in any way suggest that the talking snake is an incarnation or avatar of, or being remote-controlled by, or otherwise magically influenced by, any supernatural evil being. It's introduced by saying "Now the serpent was more subtle than any of the other animals God had made" or something of the kind; when God is pronouncing his sentences on the guilty parties, wha
1Alia1d5yI would agree that there are some Christians whose belief set could be vulnerable on the point of talking snakes. I can think of several different arguments depending on what other ideas they were holding in conjunction with their interpretation of Genesis. Using a blanket dismissal would have the advantage that you wouldn’t have to figure out which one would work on your target. But I think we would both agree it could also potentially backfire. Concerning the issue you presented, that ”natural” snakes just can’t work like that. I think you have considerably underplayed your hand. Consider Gen 1:29-30: That’s right, in the Garden of Eden every single animal was vegan. And ecosystems just don’t work like that. And I would go further and say that all these animals had the capacity at this time to live forever. Death didn’t enter the world till the fall. Rom. 5:12-14: So we are dealing with quite a big discrepancy from known biology here, and that would be a problem if I were a (Uniformitarian.)[ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uniformitarianism [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uniformitarianism]] But fundamentalists tend to be much less Uniformitarian than main stream society. So the idea that God had a different biological system set up initially, and He changed the rules as part of the curse, seems not only plausible, but a nature part of the story. Also it sort of seems you might be unconsciously assuming the traditional pictorial representation of a small to medium snake wrapped around a tree branch. But the text doesn't say the serpent was in the tree or give any other reference to size. I tend to picture something more like a Chinese dragon standing on all fours, shoulder to shoulder with Eve. So I don’t get the “brain box obviously too small for speech” effect from my mental picture. (Note on the preferences for Satan controlling the snake showing an awareness that the talking snake is silly, I think this is more about emphasizing Gen. 3:15 as a Christologi
4gjm5yThat's a fair point. But it seems to me that it amounts to saying that nothing in the stories in your scriptures could count as much evidence against their accuracy. (Suppose it said "And Adam, when he heard the sentence that the LORD God had passed upon him, knelt down upon the red grass and laughed for sorrow and shame" -- well, it's only uniformitarianism that entitles us to expect the grass to have been green or laughter to have been an unlikely response to sorrow and shame. Etc.) In which case, you're also awfully limited in what conclusions you can draw from anything in those stories. "Genesis 3 indicates that God greatly values obedience to his commands." No, it indicates that he did; for all we know, he might want something very different from us now. "The story of the Great Flood indicates that God has authority over the weather on earth." No, it indicates that he did; for all we know, he might have somehow given up that authority since then. Do these stories actually have much value, if everything they describe might have changed utterly? (You might say that God's character and values are known to be stable, unlike the laws of physics or anything in biology. But the sources that tell you that are 2000 years old! That's, like, 25% of the entire age of the universe! If God's character and values were changing on that sort of timescale, it's perfectly possible that these ancient texts might declare them to be stable even though they aren't.) I don't think I was consciously or unconsciously assuming that. But I was assuming something that's recognizably the same sort of animal as today's snakes -- God says "upon your belly shall you go", etc., not "I shall replace you with something 1/4 the size which shall go upon its belly". I think I agree, though, that the Chinese-dragon interpretation is at least kinda tenable. OK, that's a good point. (In terms of what it says about where Christian interpretations of Genesis 3 come from; I don't think the Christian
1CCC5yThere's one in Matthew 4 verse 1 to 11 [https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+4&version=GNT], in which Jesus spends forty days in the desert, fasting, and then is visited (and tempted) by the Devil.
3gjm5yTrue enough. I meant that there's no external tempter in the garden of Gethsemane. I'd already remarked that the temptation of Jesus (as found in Matthew 4) "seems very different in kind from that of Eve" and was proposing a better parallel.
0CCC5yFair enough. The way I see it, there are some themes that are paralleled in Gethsemene, and some themes that are paralleled in the forty days and nights in the desert. They're both parallels, but in different ways.
0Alia1d5yI agree that not being a Uniformitarian makes the makes the evidence harder to deal with and is generally a headache for everyone. But it should not be used to let a historical theory get away with anomaly without any hit to its plausibility, it should just reduce the size of the plausibility hit. Also several anomalies that are being explained by the same rule change only make up one plausibility hit rather than being additive. On Christological interpretations, I agree it can get out of hand, and I'm not sure they are very valid here, But if "and He should crush your head" is going of be a prophesy about Jesus, well there isn't a story of Him dramatically crushing a snake's head, so it's got to a general stamina out His victory of death, sin, and the devil, so I do think people are using that frame to identify Satan and the serpent.
3gjm5y(Sorry, this is rather long and I fear less clear than I would like.) Uniformitarianism We are in agreement that uniformitarianism is a matter of degree and that it's the complexity of the "rules" that matters, rather than of what happens. The most popular formulation of this idea around these parts is "Solomonoff induction": suppose that everything you observe is generated by a computer program, give higher initial probability to shorter programs, and then just do Bayesian inference as new observations come in. Aside from being totally uncomputable in theory and infeasibly expensive in practice and depending (finitely but hugely) on exactly what language you write your programs in and how you encode your observations, this is a really good way to decide what to believe :-). So you're probably right that you can avoid taking an extra plausibility hit from talking snakes as such, if instead you say something like "around the time of creation, living organisms worked by divine magic rather than biology" or "... living organisms were based around completely different biology". That sort of proposition generally incurs a really big cost in plausibility, for two reasons. If you're aiming for a theory that says "before, the rules were X; after, the rules were Y" then the problem is that now your program needs to contain both sets of rules. If you're never intending to go beyond "before, the rules were different; after, the rules were Y" then the problem is now your program needs to describe what happened "before" without the compression enabled by having those rules -- this is the "a witch did it" problem [http://lesswrong.com/lw/jp/occams_razor/]. (How big a problem the latter is depends on how much you observe actually depends on what happened "before".) It seems to me that "biology used to be completely different, in such a way as to make talking snakes not a problem" is obviously no improvement on "there was a (naturally) talking snake". And I think it is, actu
0Alia1d4ySorry to be so long answering this. Not only was work busy but my husband was going through withdrawal again and that is always an all consuming time sink. On Solomonoff induction: If we take a look at one of the facts this story proposes to explain, - We live in a world of decay, where humans and other animals have death as their destiny and the universe itself tends to disorder and destruction, but that this is bad and wrong and against the harmonies of logic and lawfulness and the timelessness of truth. This story’s proposal that the original and good state of the world was without any need for death, but that at one point one fundamental change was made, perhaps tweaking a law of conservation of information just enough so that its practical consequences are an ever increasing disorder, i.e. entropy, seems as elegantly simple answer as I can think of. This one rule change is more what I was thinking of, rather than swap out of the entire rule set, basically because it’s lower complexity. Yes, I am expecting that God re-cons the plant and animal world so that you get stable biology and ecosystems under this new rule, but i already had a sufficiently intelligent and powerful agent, with an established interest in having a sustained ecosystem, who could implement the needed changes. So I don’t see any new rules there. Nor do I think it should be surprising that quite a lot of surface changes could be occasioned by even a small change of one rule that was so fundamental. On parallels: I can think of lots of reasons to give why Satan controlling the snake in called for by a Christological interpretation and other reasons, like dualism, that could also lead to the idea this was a good interpretation, but I’m getting the internal feeling that I’m starting to treat my arguments like soldiers on this one. People are influenced by the culture around them so I can see how a culture that finds the idea of talking snakes silly would be one of the contributing factors to t
3gjm4ySlowness not a problem. (You wouldn't believe how long I've sometimes taken.) I hope your husband is OK. You say "one fundamental change", but I'm pretty sure there is no way to fill in the details of that story so that it actually works. Increasing entropy is a consequence of the fundamental form of the laws of physics, plus the world being in a low-entropy state at the big bang. Make a small change to that and you get not a perfect world with no death and corruption, but a world where physics doesn't work. I don't think you get to call something "elegantly simple" just because you haven't thought about the details and therefore can't see how messy they are :-). (Maybe God designed a lawful universe where entropy increases, and then set Eden up with a hacked version where entropy doesn't increase because of constant divine intervention, and then just stopped doing that when Adam and Eve didn't obey his command. That would suggest that A&E were intended to fail all along, an idea that maybe gets some support from e.g. Revelation 13:8 and which strengthens my sense that in the standard Christian interpretation of the Eden story God is the bad guy.)
1entirelyuseless5yYou might have the impression (given certain things in that Wikipedia article; not everything there is entirely accurate) that uniformitarianism is a premise which is used to interpret the world. Historically, that's inaccurate. Geologists were young earth creationists in the first place, but changed their minds and adopted uniformitarianism as a conclusion, not as a premise, because the facts on the ground did not fit with creationism, not even if the rules have changed.
0hairyfigment5yNot sure where to start regarding the oddly-named "Occam's Razor" [http://history.hanover.edu/courses/excerpts/111new.html] - though we can immediately dismiss the idea that one could do Newtonian Science without it. Possibly we'll discuss this, and modern attempts to formalize simplicity, some other time. Let me quickly note that the Chinese dragon interpretation would make God's curse on the serpent even weirder.
0Alia1d5yIt seems to me that one change at a fundamental level could have less Kolmogorov complexity then several special case exceptions at a surface level. And that is what the bringer change sounds like to me, something at a deep level, connected to death, propagating all through the system. Since we are already talking about going from a legged animal to a legless one, I don't see that doing it on a more massive animal can make a significant change in the complexity penalty.
0hairyfigment5yYour approach is wrong, and I don't know how it went wrong. (I assume the problem is deeper than "bringer change" being unknown to Google.) If you know what "Kolmogorov complexity" means, maybe think about how you would program a simulated world that allows such a change to be "fundamental" and yet produces the evidence that scientists continually find. On the much less important issue at hand: you seem to have skipped the question of why this God would take legs away from any "snake," and precisely what that entails. (Should I ask how many Chinese dragons or "seeds" [https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+3%3A14-15&version=ESV] thereof were affected? Or would that distract from the why?)
0Alia1d4yThis is one problems with the absurdity heuristic. Because of deliberately starting at a point with such a long inferential distance, It can be hard to see where the error has taken place.
0Lumifer5yI hope you're familiar with Clarke's Third Law [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clarke%27s_three_laws]?
0Jiro5yBelievers can say "we've chosen to take it as a metaphor now". But if the believers make statements referencing the past or other believers, they can't say that any more. And typically they do.
2g_pepper5yI believe you are making a charge (which I have heard made before) that the claim that some scriptural passages were intended as metaphors is a relatively recent innovation among believers to accommodate religion to modern scientific discoveries, and that it breaks with the traditional, literal interpretation of those passages. In fact, there is a long tradition among theologians to recognize that much of scripture should be interpreted metaphorically and/or allegorically rather than literally. Examples include Origen of Alexandria (late second - early third century CE) who took much of the Garden of Eden story to be allegorical, Augustine of Hippo who stated (in a work entitled The Literal Interpretation of Genesis from the early fifth century) that much of Genesis cannot and should not be interpreted literally, and Irenaeus of Lyons (second century CE) who interpreted the Garden of Eden story allegorically (in Against Heresies). While it is certainly the case that some believers traditionally interpreted Genesis literally (and some still do), it is also the case that there is an ancient tradition of interpreting Genesis metaphorically/allegorically and so modern believers are by no means breaking with tradition if they interpret the serpent metaphorically.
0Jiro5yPretty much every variation on a religion you can think of has been thought up by someone, at some time in the past. You can't use that as your criteria for "ancient tradition" without making the whole concept of "ancient tradition" meaningless because now everything is one. How mainstream was the belief that Genesis is not literal? For that matter, since religion is supposed to provide eternal truth, the idea of having a minority tradition in sometinng seems problematic. If a religion has multiple traditions at once, how do you decide which one counts as the "real" one that nonbelievers should be criticizing? And if the ancients had beliefs A or B, but moderns only have A, how do you decide that that counts as the ancients believing A (so you can claim that moderns are following tradition) rather than as the ancients believing B (which means that moderns are breaking with tradition)?
2g_pepper5yWell, the three authors that I listed are among the most influential early doctors of the church, so their views are definitely mainstream (albeit not universally held). I don't know about that. I listed three very influential early Christian theologians who took much of Genesis to be non literal. Your point that there are divergent views on the matter of how literally to take Genesis is certainly true and not in dispute. I alluded to that fact in my post when I said: However, I don't see how that conflicts with my point that one can interpret the serpent story metaphorically without breaking with early mainstream Christian traditions. Moreover, you wrote: I don't see how the fact that there are divergent interpretations of some scriptural stories is particularly surprising or problematic, unless you are trying judge ancient religious texts against the stylistic standards of modern historical or scientific writing (which presumably most people would not recommend doing).
0Jiro5yIt's problematic because it provides a ready-made excuse to deny having changed when you get something wrong and you're forced to change. "Oh, we didn't really change anything, look, we're following this old tradition", even though you could have decided any one of several mutually exclusive things and still been able to claim you're following a tradition.
3entirelyuseless5yBeliefs about whether or not the snake is literal are not, and never were, "core beliefs" of Christians. Core beliefs are the things that are contained in the creed, like that Jesus rose from the dead and so on. If you found conclusive scientific proof that Jesus did not rise from the dead, very few Christians would accept that. The reaction to that, no matter how strong the proof, would be very different from the reaction to evolution.
2entirelyuseless5yI suspect that two hundred years ago, most scientists believed that human beings were not descended from monkeys. That does not make evolution denial a "core belief" of science, nor do the beliefs of Christians two hundred years ago automatically constitute the beliefs of Christians today.
7gjm5yThe attitude of science to its past and the attitude of Christianity to its past are very (and relevantly) different. In science, everything is meant to be revisable in the light of new evidence; authority is always supposed to be subordinate to reason and experimental results; there's a reason why the motto of the Royal Society is nullius in verba . Christianity, on the other hand, has authorities up the wazoo. (Different authorities for different sects.) The Bible (held by many to be perfectly free from error). The Magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church (held by many to be perfectly free from error, subject to certain conditions). The ancient creeds (held by many to be perfectly free from error). The Thirty-Nine Articles of the Anglican Church. The Apostolic Fathers. Luther. Calvin. Aquinas. Augustine. Accepted as authorities (in so far as each one is, by any given Christian) not in the way that someone might appeal to, say, Murray Gell-Mann ("he's incredibly smart and has been very reliably right before -- but of course whatever he says can be checked by other people and anyone can make mistakes") but simply because they're Known Authorities. In science, a discovery from 200 years ago may be admired as an impressive piece of work, but the assumption is usually that since then we've improved our techniques, done more careful analysis, and superseded it. In Christianity, all the central ideas are centuries old, they are explicitly passed down the generations, and they are believed largely because there is a tradition (etymology: a thing handed down) saying that one should believe them -- and, in many cases, because it is thought that they originally -- centuries ago -- entered the world at the command of God. The best reason for accepting any given scientific theory is generally that there is good experimental evidence that it describes the world accurately. In principle, anyone -- at least anyone with the right skills and equipment -- can repeat the experim
0entirelyuseless5yI agree with this, although I do not think it is a sufficient argument to prove that Christianity is false if taken alone, and I think it is inappropriate to criticize Christians both for refusing to update on evidence and for changing their minds when they are mistaken (not that you did this here, but I frequently see it.) People certainly should change their minds when they are mistaken, and yes this makes it more likely that they are also wrong about the other things that they haven't changed their minds about yet.
4gjm5yI agree that it is nowhere near enough on its own to refute Christianity. If someone (or some institution) has been wrong then they will be criticized for refusing to update if they stick to their old wrong position, and for inconsistency if they change; the fact that they are faced with these two opposite complaints doesn't mean that their critics are unreasonable, it means that once you've done something wrong it's too late for any course of action to render you immune to criticism. Inconsistency isn't really the right thing to complain about if they change; but, actually, I think the usual complaint made by skeptics about the less-traditional sort of Christian isn't "boo, you changed and that's not allowed"; it's more like "you call yourself a Christian and offer your reasonableness as evidence that the Christian tradition is reasonable; but your position is very far from representative of the Christian tradition and your reasonableness doesn't negate its flaws". (With, perhaps, a side order of "you're adopting a position that's basically indistinguishable from ours, while wrapping yourselves in the apparel of the more popular other guys; that makes arguments with you frustrating and rather unfair".)
3CCC5yA bit of googling on the Vatican website turned up this document [http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p1s2c1p7.htm], from which I quote: So, the official position of the Vatican is that Genesis uses figurative language; that there was a temptation to disobey the strictures laid in place by God, and that such disobedience was freely chosen; but not that there was necessarily a literal talking snake. In other words, the talking snake is gone, but there is still original sin. As to the question of disagreement between the discoveries of science and the word of scripture, I found a document dated 1893 [http://w2.vatican.va/content/leo-xiii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_l-xiii_enc_18111893_providentissimus-deus.html] from which I will quote: -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- It's only fair to compare like with like. I'm sure that I can find some people, who profess both a belief that evolution is correct and that monkeys gave birth to humans; and yes, I am aware that this mean they have a badly flawed idea of what evolution is. So, in fairness, if you're going to be considering only leading evolutionists in defense of evolution, it makes sense to consider only leading theologians in the question of whether Genesis is literal or figurative.
0CarlJ5yThat text is actually quite misleading. It never says that it's the snake that should be thought of as figuratively, maybe it's the Tree or eating a certain fruit that is figurative. But, let us suppose that it is the snake they refer to - it doesn't disappear entirely. Because, a little further up in the catechism they mention this event again: The devil is a being of "pure spirit" and the catholics believe that he was an angel that disobeyed god. Now, this fallen angel somehow tempts the first parents, who are in a garden (378 [http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/__P1B.HTM]). It could presumably only be done in one or two ways: Satan talks directly to Adam and Eve, or he talks through some medium. This medium doesn't have to be a snake, it could have been a salad. So, they have an overall story of the Fall which they say they believe is literal, but they believe certain aspects of it (possibly the snake part) isn't necessarily true. Now, Maher's joke would still make sense in either of these two cases. It would just have to change a little bit: "...but when all is said and done, they're adults who believe in a talking salad." "...but when all is said and done, they're adults who believe in spirits that try to make you do bad stuff." So, even if they say that they don't believe in every aspect of the story, it smacks of disingenuousness. It's like saying that I don't believe the story of Cinderella getting a dress from a witch, but that there were some sort of other-wordly character that made her those nice shining shoes. But, they don't even say that the snake isn't real. I don't see what your second quote shows about my argument that if they don't believe in the snake, what keeps them from saying that anything else is also figuratively (such as the existence of God). I agree there is probably someone who says that evolution is true and that people evolved from monkeys. But, to compare likes with likes here, you would have to find a leading evolution
0CCC4y(Apologies - accidentally double posted)
0CCC4yTrue - any part of the described incident (more likely, all of it) could be figurative. Not necessarily. Communication does not need to be verbal. The temptation could have appeared in terms of, say, the manipulation of coincidence. Or, as you put it, a spirit that tries to make people do bad stuff. But yes, there is definitely a Tempter there; some sort of malign intelligence that tries to persuade people to do Bad Stuff. That is a fairly well-known part of Catholic theology, commonly known as the devil. The Vatican tends to be very, very, very, very cautious about definite statements of any sort. As in, they prefer not to make them if there is any possibility at all that they might be wrong. And hey, small though the probability appears, maybe there was a talking snake... Would I need to find leading evolutionists, or merely someone who claims to be a leading evolutionist? The second is probably a lot easier than the first. My googling is defeated by creationists using the claim as a strawman. ...to be fair, I didn't really look all that hard.
0Lumifer5yDoes Wikipedia [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chimpanzee%E2%80%93human_last_common_ancestor] count?
1hairyfigment5yIt would indeed, if it said that. The page you linked plainly doesn't.
-1Lumifer5yYou don't think that the creature Wikipedia refers to as CHLCA was a monkey?
0Good_Burning_Plastic5yDepends on what you mean by "monkey". IIRC the "standard" definition is paraphiletic as it excludes apes.
0Lumifer5yIn the context of "did man evolve from monkeys" the definition clearly includes apes. In casual language, too, a chimpanzee is a monkey. That all is rather peripheral to the main point, though.
0Good_Burning_Plastic5yOn rereading the thread it was CarlJ who replaced the "monkeys gave birth to humans" in CCC's comment with "man evolved from monkeys", FWIW.
2Lumifer5yBecause if you replace the talking snake with, say, a monkey which gave Eve the apple and indicated by gestures that Eve should eat it, nothing much would change in Christianity. Maybe St.George would now be rampant over a gorilla instead of a dragon...
1CarlJ5yTrue, there would only be some superficial changes, from a non-believing standpoint. But if you believe that the Bible is literal, then to point this out is to cast doubt on anything else in the book that is magical (or something which could be produced by a more sophisticated race of aliens or such). That is, the probability that this books represents a true story of magical (or much technologically superior) beings gets lower, and the probability that it is a pre-modern fairy tale increases. And that is what the joke is trying to point out, that these things didn't really happen, they are fictional.
0Lumifer5yIf you actually believe that the Bible represents a true story about a magical being or beings then the obvious retort is that there is no problem at all with talking snakes. A talking snake is a very minor matter compared with, say, creating the world. Why wouldn't there be one? Just because you find the idea ridiculous? But it is NOT ridiculous conditional on the existence of sufficiently strong magic.
4gjm5yIt's not impossible conditional on the existence of strong magic. I'm not so sure it's not still ridiculous even conditional on the existence of strong magic. Especially as, in the story, the snake doesn't appear to be magically talking, it's just "more cunning than any of the other creatures YHWH had made" or whatever exactly the text says. We now know that talking requires a big fancy brain, such as humans have and snakes conspicuously don't (and don't have room for), and the right sort of vocal apparatus, ditto. Back in 2000BCE or whenever it was, of course it was well known by observation that snakes don't talk, but it presumably wasn't understood that they can't and why. And when we see an old story featuring a talking snake, which doesn't present it as able to talk on account of some sort of magic or divine intervention but just oh, hey, a talking snake, I think it's reasonable to say to ourselves "See, the people who wrote that story just didn't understand how implausible that bit of it is". And I think it's reasonable to see the talking snake as making the story less plausible than it would have been without it. And also, I think, less plausible than if its talking had been explicitly explained by magic or divine/diabolical intervention. Not because those are plausible explanations otherwise, but because the rest of the story is already committed to the sort of world in which such things might work, and in such a world a magically or divinely talking sheep is more plausible than an "ordinarily" talking sheep.
1Lumifer5y"Ridiculous" implies a context and the usual dismissive context here would be "Ha-ha, talking snakes, like in fairy tales for little children?" But that's not the context in Genesis. You probably have a small box in your pocket or nearby. That box can not only talk, but even show moving pictures, from another side of the world, even. And yet, it doesn't seem to have a "big fancy brain". I think it's quite unreasonable. People who told that story were, of course, well aware that garden-variety (heh) snakes don't talk. Clearly, that particular serpent was not one of those. I am not sure, but I think that the conventional Christian interpretation is that the snake (which might have been a dragon [https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=rev%2012:9,20:2&version=ESV]) has been possessed by Satan and was no more than a remote-controlled drone, so to say. In any case, I find the focus on talking snakes in a story which mentions things like "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth" to be somewhat misguided :-/
2gjm5yI think you've missed a central point of my argument. (So I wasn't clear enough. Sorry.) Of course they were well aware that ordinary snakes these days don't talk. But reading the story, it seems to me clear that they thought it perfectly reasonable that once upon a time the smartest non-human animals might have talked, and that snakes might have been the smartest non-human animals. In other words, it seems to me that this is not a story about a snake given special powers by magic, or sufficiently advanced technology, or devil-possession. And that's exactly why the fact that the snake talks indicates a deficiency in their understanding. If the story had said "Now, an evil spirit had entered into the serpent, and it spoke: ..." then it wouldn't have had been evidence of that deficiency. Christian theology isn't homogeneous enough for there to be such a thing as the conventional Christian interpretation, but here are some comments from a few different sorts of fairly-mainstream Christian sources. The NIV Study Bible (conservative evangelical, fairly lowbrow, creationist) takes basically the position you describe. "The great deceiver clothed himself as a serpent, one of God's good creatures". The New Jerome Biblical Commentary (liberalish Catholic, middle-high-brow) takes a precisely opposite view. "The snake is not Satan, though later traditions so interpreted it [...]. He is simply a mischievous creature made by God, dramatically necessary [...] he recedes into the background when his narrative function is accomplished." "The theology of the Book of Genesis" by R W L Moberley (liberal Anglican, accessible academic) concurs. "So, although the serpent is clearly not identified with Satan, as in much subsequent construal of the story, the implied reader has good reason to be wary about words from an archetypal ancestor of enmity -- indeed, potentially deadly enmity -- against humanity." (He is referring here to nothing more theological than the fact that snakes an
0DanArmak5yTo be fair, in the Genesis story, God cursed both the snakes and the humans to forever more not get along with one another. That's a bit more theological.
-1Lumifer5yThat is not clear to me at all. In fact, I am tempted (hiss!) to characterise this as a wild flight of fantasy. I see no reason to believe ancient Hebrews thought that long time ago animals talked -- or considered snakes to be the smartest animals. AFAIK animals don't talk in the Old Testament with two exceptions: the serpent in the Garden of Eden and Balaam's donkey (which was able to talk by an explicit act of God). But in any case -- "indicates a deficiency in their understanding", so what? It is very obvious there were a lot of deficiencies in their understanding, and..? You misunderstand my position. It is not that Satan became the serpent, but that Satan possessed the serpent. Incarnation vs remote teleoperation.
2gjm5yI suggest that Genesis 3 is actually some (admittedly weak) reason to believe that. But, for the avoidance of doubt, my conjecture is not that they thought all animals talked, and I am not suggesting that they thought any non-human animals talked post-Eden. According to this [http://judaism.stackexchange.com/questions/9243/do-religious-jews-generally-believe-the-serpent-of-garden-of-eden-was-satan] , at least some ancient-ish Hebrew commentators thought that "The snake from creation was an intelligent animal that talked, thought, and walked upright like a human". This is already long after when Genesis 3 was written, of course, but it does at minimum make it clear that this was by no means an unthinkable thought. So that's exactly the point of people saying "ha ha, your religion has a talking snake in it", and they need not be making an error in going from "this religion's holy book has a story with a talking snake in it" to "this religion is less likely to be right than if it didn't have that story". And the fact that magic or divine intervention could obviously (if either existed) make snakes talk doesn't invalidate that. No, actually I wondered about saying "except that it's more like incarnation than possession" but decided that was unnecessary nitpicking. So yes, rather than "of my sample of three, one basically agrees with you and two flatly disagree" it would be more accurate to say "of my sample of three, one kinda agrees with you and two flatly disagree". The sample, by the way, consisted of the books I happen to have on my shelves that I could tell from the titles were likely to express some opinion about the question. I looked in one other but it turned out not to. So no cherry-picking here. (But I should add that I would not expect randomly chosen Christians to be much like random samples of those three, because most Christians are theologically unsophisticated; so some version of the serpent=Satan theory might well be more popular than that sample
1Lumifer5yAccording to your own link, some commentators thought that the snake was an intelligent humanoid, some thought it was Satan in the flesh, and some thought that Genesis was... mistaken about the snake speaking. All it shows is that the variety of interpretations is wide. "Not an unthinkable thought" is a remarkably low bar, at this level pretty much anything goes. That's a stupid point, of the same kind as "the Pope wears a silly hat, ha-ha, he must be really dumb". It's just agitprop. I don't see any reason to pay attention to such "points", do you?
4gjm5yFor sure. My point is that the culture Genesis 3 came out of was one that had at least some inclination to accept the idea of talking snakes, which makes it more plausible that the talking snake in Genesis 3 was intended to be understood as, well, an actual talking snake (which is how, at face value, the story describes it) rather than a puppet of the Devil, or a metaphor for human curiosity, or whatever.
1hairyfigment5yYes, Lumifer's objections - based on a character who does not appear in Genesis at all - seem silly to me. On the other hand, if God made the world, he could have used unnecessary magic on any number of animals in the 'natural' course of creation. (As I'm sure we all know, a god of divine rank 16 [http://www.d20srd.org/srd/divine/divineAbilitiesFeats.htm#divineCreation] could make a talking snake much more easily than he could make a planet [http://www.d20srd.org/srd/divine/divineAbilitiesFeats.htm#createGreaterObject] !) So this is a weak argument.
1entirelyuseless5yJosephus believed that there was a talking snake, and that this was merely an example of the fact that all animals could talk. I have a blog post about that here. [https://entirelyuseless.wordpress.com/2015/11/03/josephus-on-the-fall/]. However, I am skeptical that the original intention of the story is to make such claims. I think that whoever first came up with the story, whether that was written or oral, and even if it was based on other accounts, must have known that they were creating a story. But given the lack of context that ancient accounts used to have, it was difficult for other people to know what was a story and what wasn't, when the account was received from hundreds of years ago.
4gjm5yI'm not sure the original intention is quite what matters. Suppose a religion is made up by outright fraudsters. If someone says "look, this religion says X and Y and Z, which we know are not true", is it any refutation of that argument to say "well, sure, but the original authors of that story knew X and Y and Z weren't true"? Of course not. If the story in Genesis 3 was deliberately made up by people who did not believe there had ever been a talking snake, with the intention that subsequent readers or listeners would take it as historical, then the situation is the same as in the previous paragraph. If it was made up with the intention that readers or listeners would treat it as fiction (or perhaps I should say fable or myth), then indeed their epistemic situation was just fine and I have no particular objection to it -- at least not on these grounds. But if (as I think likely, and it sounds as if you agree) subsequent readers or listeners ended up treating it as history or something like history -- why, then, that indicates that those subsequent readers or listeners had terrible epistemic hygiene; isn't that highly relevant in evaluating other parts of the belief system those people have handed down to us?
2Lumifer5yTranslation: they were human. I don't know of any large populations with non-terrible epistemic hygiene.
4gjm5yThe relevant issue is not the epistemic hygiene of the populations, but of (so to speak) the process by which any given body of ideas reaches us. In the case of the Bible, on entirelyuseless's (plausible) hypothesis we find that at least some of it reached us (in its role as Sacred Scripture, no less) by being treated as reliable history by people who had no good reason to think of it as more than a fable. Not every body-of-ideas exhibits such crass indifference to truth in its history, though of course it's by no means only religious ones that do.
1Lumifer5yAnd..? So what? I am not sure I see the point.
4gjm5ySo the presence of the talking snake in the story is evidence against the rightness of the religion, for reasons that can be (albeit needlessly rudely and uninformatively) expressed as "ha ha, your religion has talking snakes, how ridiculous". Just to be clear, what exactly is your point in this thread?
0Lumifer5yI don't see how that follows from your previous comment. And in any case, I continue to disagree with that statement. Let's go upthread. That [http://lesswrong.com/lw/2d/talking_snakes_a_cautionary_tale/d9th] was my first comment and I still stand by it.
3gjm5yWhile we're restating our positions: I (1) agree that the talking snake is a long, long way from being the best reason for thinking that Christianity-as-traditionally-understood is badly wrong, but (2) think "conditional on sufficiently strong magic" misses the point, because the talking snake is not portrayed as talking on account of any sort of magic. And I suggest that we leave it there rather than engaging in further rounds of clarification and/or nitpicking.
1ChristianKl5yThat assumes that it's always the goal of an author to tell the average reader the truth. As early as the 12th when Maimonides writes his Guide there's the idea that the Torah is purposefully written in a way that the average reader doesn't get it's secrets. Only wise people are supposed to understand it. If a story successfully throws off a reader that isn't wise it might have done it's job.
3gjm5yYes, that's true, it might. Someone who embraces an esoteric version of (say) Christianity that takes all the silly-sounding things in it to be coded messages designed to be mostly misunderstood does indeed hold a position that isn't vulnerable to attack on the basis of how silly the stories sound. I don't think that was the sort of scenario entirelyuseless had in mind, though.
1Jiro5yIf a story successfully throws off a reader that isn't wise, but people who aren't wise still get to go to Hell based on not acting as demanded by the story they don't understand, then the writer is being a major jerk.
1ChristianKl5yThe average person isn't supposed to get his knowledge by reading himself but by listening to his rabbi/priest.
0entirelyuseless5yI agree about the case of deliberate fraud. For example it seems likely to me that Joseph Smith knew that he was inventing the Book of Mormon, and the fact that he knew that is not a defense of Mormonism; if anything it makes things worse. Genesis and similar things seem a bit different to me, in at least two ways: 1) having no access to the origin in that case, I don't have any particular reason to suppose dishonest motives, and 2) there are many aspects of the accounts that look idealized, in a way that isn't terribly reasonable for someone who is trying to delude people. In other words, I suspect something like this: the author thinks, "Of course no one knows what really happened. But I'm guessing it was something like this. And of course everyone else knows that no one knows, so they'll know that this is a guess." But if that's the case, historically those authors were mistaken. People didn't just know they didn't know, but assumed the accounts were accurate even in a detailed way, for the most part, even if there were exceptions to that kind of interpretation even e.g. in the early church. I agree with the last point, that these facts are highly relevant. As I said e.g. about the resurrection, Christians definitely distinguished all along between beliefs about the interpretation of Genesis and actual creedal beliefs. But that doesn't change the fact that they were very certain about the Genesis story, for the most part, nor the fact that their certainty was religiously motivated. And that is prima facie a pretty good argument that the whole religion is false. I didn't say that there aren't arguments like that, just that this does not account for everything.
2ChristianKl5yThat isn't necessarily true. The story could have been created by a process such as channeling that's believed by the author of the story to produce reliable wisdom. In Buddhism there's historical "knowledge" coming from past-life memories.
0CCC5yHow big and fancy a brain does a parrot [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alex_%28parrot%29] have?
2gjm5yI'd need to see a sample size bigger than 1 to be sure that Alex's (prima facie very impressive) achievements weren't exaggerated. And it's clear that he was a long, long way from the level of understanding shown by the snake in Genesis 3. But you and DanArmak are right to point out that birds' brains do seem to achieve more understanding per unit size than primate brains.
0DanArmak5yNitpick: Talking the way we do maybe requires a big brain. We have no reason to think talking in general requires one. AFAIK, there's no consensus on when language evolved, but many or most scientists seem to think it was after the human brain grew to its present size, not before. New Caledonian crows have intelligence generally comparable to that of chimpanzees; not as great as, but not much less than either. Yet their brains weigh only 7-8 grams. Large snakes can have much larger brains than that. Anyway, brain size is relative to body weight; EQ is a better measure.

How about this: if you think a belief is absurd and someone else disagrees, listen to their explanation of why it's not absurd.

This allows us to keep the heuristic while avoiding her mistake. The heuristic allows us to tell very quickly upon observation of their claims whether something's gone wrong in someone's reasoning process. This is justified in a similar way to how it's justified to be skeptical if someone tells you they've discovered a new prime number that happens to end with a 2.

4gjm5yI know of an old prime number that happens to end with a 2.
1Vamair05yHow old is it, exactly?
1CynicalOptimist5yI think the original poster would have agreed to this even before they had the realisation. The point here is that, even when you do listen to an explanation, the absurdity bias can still mislead you. The lady in the story had an entire conversation about evolution and still rejected it as absurd. Some ideas simply take more than 20 minutes to digest, understand and learn about. Therfore after 20 minutes of conversation, you cannot reasonably conclude that you've heard everything there is. You cannot reasonably conclude that you wouldn't be convinced by more evidence. It's just like any bias really. Even when you know about it and you think you've adjusted sufficiently, you probably haven't.
3gjm5yI agree with all of that. But there's a limit to how much effort you can reasonably be expected to put into considering whether something that seems absurd to you is really not-absurd. I suggest that that depends on what other evidence there is for its non-absurdity. E.g., in the case of evolution, it's highly relevant that it's endorsed by the great majority of biologists, including biologists belonging to religions whose traditions contain stories that prima facie conflict with evolution. There are a lot of super-smart Christians too, which I think it's reasonable to take as evidence that Christianity can't rightly be dismissed simply because its tradition contains a story about a talking snake. On the other hand, there aren't so many super-smart talking-snake-believers -- even among Christians, most[1] of the cleverest and most educated don't take the story as indicating that there was ever a talking snake -- which suggests that treating a literal reading of the talking-snake story as absurd probably isn't unreasonable. [1] Though certainly not all.
0CynicalOptimist5yOh absolutely. We don't have time to thoroughly investigate the case for every idea we come across. There comes a time when you say that you're not interested in exploring an idea any further. But there is an intellectual honesty to admitting that you haven't heard all of the evidence, and acknowledging that you might conceivably have changed your mind (or least significantly changed your probability estimates) if you had done more research. And there's a value to it as well. Some ideas have been thoroughly researched and should be labelled in our minds as "debunked". Others should be labelled as "not yet disproven". Later, if we happen to encounter more evidence on the topic, we might take this into account when we decide how seriously to take it. The lady in the story might have sounded much more sensible to us if she had said "Evolution still sounds absurd to me, but I'll admit that i haven't yet given the pro-evolution argument a proper opportunity to change my mind". And i think we should try to be that sensible ourselves.
3gjm5yAgain, I agree with all of that.
0CynicalOptimist4yThank you. :)
0Jiro5yI think the unbelievability of evolution has been greatly exaggerated. People believe that diseases are caused by living things that they can't even see. They believe that you can destroy a city with enough uranium to fit into a car. They believe that burning fuel hundreds of miles away produces this stuff that comes through copper wires to their home and makes their refrigerator run. Evolution is not more unbelievable than those. It's likely that in most cases where someone "didn't digest and learn about" evolution, they are rejecting it because it conflicts with something they already believe for other reasons, and "it's just plain unbelievable" is an excuse, not a reason. I suspect that if you went up to a Christian Scientist and explained germ theory to him, he'd tell you it's unbelievable in the same way that literalist Christians or Muslims would tell you that evolution is unbelievable. Yet plenty of people whose religions don't contradict germ theory, but who haven't studied the science either, find it perfectly believable.
0entirelyuseless5yI think many people find evolution "unbelievable" in the way that many scientists found the idea of continental drift unbelievable even after there was a lot of evidence for it (the physical shape of the continents, the types of fossils found in certain areas, and so on.) That is, the effect (that these continents are thousands of miles apart) just seems too big, and in a similar way, living things just seem too far apart overall. If you set that aside, people could have come up with the idea of evolution just by thinking carefully what happens when you make a series of imperfect copies, about the fact the reproduction of living things is in fact a case of making an imperfect copy, and about the kinds of patterns that living things fall into. But in fact pretty much no one suggested the theory until there was a lot more evidence than that.
2Jiro5yBelieving in germs has a pretty big effect, yet most people have no problem believing in germs (or atoms, or electricity, or the Earth moving around the sun). All they need is a couple of scientists to say "there are these invisible things that cause disease" and they're perfectly happy to believe the scientists. It may be that scientists themselves had trouble believing in continental drift or germs when they were first introduced, but we're not talking about scientists here; we're talking about everyday people who get their knowledge from authorities. Everyday people have no trouble believing in germs or atom bombs when told by an authority, and evolution isn't any more absurd-sounding than those. They only think evolution "sounds absurd" because it contradicts their religion.
2ChristianKl5yA lot of those average people also have no problem believing that homeopathy or acupuncture works. Part of the problem of evolution is that's in direct competition with other models of explaining the world. It's perfectly possible for the average person to believe in Germs causing disease and in bad chi causing it which is to be treated via acupuncture.
0CynicalOptimist5yThis is perfectly true. But it doesn't much matter, because the point here is that when these people reject the idea of evolution, for these kind of reasons, they use feelings of "absurdity" as a metric - without critically assessing the reasons why they feel that way. The point here isnt that the lady was using sound and rational reasoning skills. The contention is that her style of reasoning was something a rationalist shouldn't want to use - and that it was something the author no longer wants to use in their own thinking.
1Jiro5yThe point was to compare a religious believer saying "evolution sounds absurd" to a rationalist saying "talking snakes sound absurd". But the situations are not comparable. The religious believer only claims that evolution sounds absurd because he applies different standards for absurdity to things that contradict his religion and things which don't. The rationalist claims that talking snakes sound absurd using consistent standards (though not the same standards as the religious believer).
0CynicalOptimist5yIncidentally, does this prime number have to be expressed in Base 10?
3gjm5yEvery base is base 10. (There is no prime number ending with a 2 in binary. Other than that, you're fine.)
1CCC5yThere is a fairly trivial proof^ that every prime number except 3 can be written such that it ends in a 2 if the base in which it it written is correctly chosen. For example, 11 (base 10) in base 3 is 102. 37 (base 10) in base 7 is 52. 101 (base 10) in base 3 is 10202. Of course, the base has to always be odd. -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- ^ Deliberately left as an exercise for the reader. It really is trivial, but it seems so obvious once it's known that I'm honestly curious how obvious it is (or isn't?) when it's not already known.
2Good_Burning_Plastic5yTook me several minutes, and I'm still not 100% sure my proof is correct. Edit: The one I was thinking of was more complicated than needed. Nal vagrtre a terngre guna sbhe raqf jvgu gjb jura jevggra va onfr a zvahf gjb.
1g_pepper5yThat was the proof that I thought of as well.
0CCC5yYep, that's what I had. More generally: Sbe nal vagrtre a terngre guna gjb gvzrf k, cvpx gur onfr (a zvahf k) gb jevgr a fhpu gung vg raqf va gur qvtvg k.
2gjm5yTo me: about three seconds' thought after reading your statement. But I'm an actual mathematician and therefore not necessarily typical.
2johnlawrenceaspden5yTook me about 30 seconds, but I'm only an ex-mathematician and I'm not as clever as g!
0CCC5yNoted. Thanks, this tells me that to someone with some knowledge of mathematics it really is as obvious as it looked.
1gjm5yIn my case, at least, essentially all the time taken to solve the problem was "decoding" it -- working out what it was really saying. That is: fnlvat gung jura lbh jevgr n ahzore va onfr o vg raqf va n gjb vf rknpgyl gur fnzr guvat nf fnlvat gung gur ahzore rdhnyf gjb zbqhyb o, naq (vs lbh'er hfrq gb guvf fghss) gb fnl gung vf gb frr gur fbyhgvba.
1CCC5yNever underestimate the utility of properly describing a problem. I've found that it's really amazing how often, by the time you've figured out what question you really want to ask to solve the problem, you're already most of the way to the answer...
3gjm5yYes, I very much agree.
0CynicalOptimist5yI think this is the basis of good Business Analysis. A field I'm intending to move into. It's the very essence of "Hold off on proposing solutions".

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The absurdity heuristic does work well. Almost every possible absurd claim is false. Like most heuristics, it only becomes a problem when you continue using it outside its realm of usefulness.

Almost every possible non-absurd claim is also false. I think this is Occam's Razor, not the absurdity heuristic, in effect and working great.

1CynicalOptimist5yExactly! To demonstrate in this way that the absurdity heuristic is useful, you would have to claim something like: The ratio of false absurd claims (that you are likely to encounter) to true absurd claims (that you are likely to encounter) is much higher than the ratio of false non-absurd claims (that you are likely to encounter) to true non-absurd claims (that you are likely to encounter). EDIT wow. I'm the person who wrote that, and i still find it hard to read it. This is one of the reasons why rationality is hard. Even when you have a good intuition for the concepts, it's still hard to express the ideas in a concrete way.
3Annoyance12y"Almost every possible absurd claim is false." Ah, I see you have adopted Douglas Adams' argument which demonstrates that the population of the universe is zero.
9thomblake12yAha - I knew this sounded familiar. For those not familiar with it, here it is: Retrieved from http://hitchhikers.wikia.com/wiki/Universe [http://hitchhikers.wikia.com/wiki/Universe] EDIT: note that this doesn't work, for several obvious reasons, notably that a subset of an infinite set can be infinite.