A few years back, my great-grandmother died, in her nineties, after a long, slow, and cruel disintegration. I never knew her as a person, but in my distant childhood, she cooked for her family; I remember her gefilte fish, and her face, and that she was kind to me. At her funeral, my grand-uncle, who had taken care of her for years, spoke. He said, choking back tears, that God had called back his mother piece by piece: her memory, and her speech, and then finally her smile; and that when God finally took her smile, he knew it wouldn’t be long before she died, because it meant that she was almost entirely gone.
I heard this and was puzzled, because it was an unthinkably horrible thing to happen to anyone, and therefore I would not have expected my grand-uncle to attribute it to God. Usually, a Jew would somehow just-not-think-about the logical implication that God had permitted a tragedy. According to Jewish theology, God continually sustains the universe and chooses every event in it; but ordinarily, drawing logical implications from this belief is reserved for happier occasions. By saying “God did it!” only when you’ve been blessed with a baby girl, and just-not-thinking “God did it!” for miscarriages and stillbirths and crib deaths, you can build up quite a lopsided picture of your God’s benevolent personality.
Hence I was surprised to hear my grand-uncle attributing the slow disintegration of his mother to a deliberate, strategically planned act of God. It violated the rules of religious self-deception as I understood them.
If I had noticed my own confusion, I could have made a successful surprising prediction. Not long afterward, my grand-uncle left the Jewish religion. (The only member of my extended family besides myself to do so, as far as I know.)
Modern Orthodox Judaism is like no other religion I have ever heard of, and I don’t know how to describe it to anyone who hasn’t been forced to study Mishna and Gemara. There is a tradition of questioning, but the kind of questioning . . . It would not be at all surprising to hear a rabbi, in his weekly sermon, point out the conflict between the seven days of creation and the 13.7 billion years since the Big Bang—because he thought he had a really clever explanation for it, involving three other Biblical references, a Midrash, and a half-understood article in Scientific American. In Orthodox Judaism you’re allowed to notice inconsistencies and contradictions, but only for purposes of explaining them away, and whoever comes up with the most complicated explanation gets a prize.
There is a tradition of inquiry. But you only attack targets for purposes of defending them. You only attack targets you know you can defend.
In Modern Orthodox Judaism I have not heard much emphasis of the virtues of blind faith. You’re allowed to doubt. You’re just not allowed to successfully doubt.
I expect that the vast majority of educated Orthodox Jews have questioned their faith at some point in their lives. But the questioning probably went something like this: “According to the skeptics, the Torah says that the universe was created in seven days, which is not scientifically accurate. But would the original tribespeople of Israel, gathered at Mount Sinai, have been able to understand the scientific truth, even if it had been presented to them? Did they even have a word for ‘billion’? It’s easier to see the seven-days story as a metaphor—first God created light, which represents the Big Bang . . .”
Is this the weakest point at which to attack one’s own Judaism? Read a bit further on in the Torah, and you can find God killing the first-born male children of Egypt to convince an unelected Pharaoh to release slaves who logically could have been teleported out of the country. An Orthodox Jew is most certainly familiar with this episode, because they are supposed to read through the entire Torah in synagogue once per year, and this event has an associated major holiday. The name “Passover” (“Pesach”) comes from God passing over the Jewish households while killing every male firstborn in Egypt.
Modern Orthodox Jews are, by and large, kind and civilized people; far more civilized than the several editors of the Old Testament. Even the old rabbis were more civilized. There’s a ritual in the Seder where you take ten drops of wine from your cup, one drop for each of the Ten Plagues, to emphasize the suffering of the Egyptians. (Of course, you’re supposed to be sympathetic to the suffering of the Egyptians, but not so sympathetic that you stand up and say, “This is not right! It is wrong to do such a thing!”) It shows an interesting contrast—the rabbis were sufficiently kinder than the compilers of the Old Testament that they saw the harshness of the Plagues. But Science was weaker in these days, and so rabbis could ponder the more unpleasant aspects of Scripture without fearing that it would break their faith entirely.
You don’t even ask whether the incident reflects poorly on God, so there’s no need to quickly blurt out “The ways of God are mysterious!” or “We’re not wise enough to question God’s decisions!” or “Murdering babies is okay when God does it!” That part of the question is just-not-thought-about.
The reason that educated religious people stay religious, I suspect, is that when they doubt, they are subconsciously very careful to attack their own beliefs only at the strongest points—places where they know they can defend. Moreover, places where rehearsing the standard defense will feel strengthening.
It probably feels really good, for example, to rehearse one’s prescripted defense for “Doesn’t Science say that the universe is just meaningless atoms bopping around?” because it confirms the meaning of the universe and how it flows from God, etc. Much more comfortable to think about than an illiterate Egyptian mother wailing over the crib of her slaughtered son. Anyone who spontaneously thinks about the latter, when questioning their faith in Judaism, is really questioning it, and is probably not going to stay Jewish much longer.
My point here is not just to beat up on Orthodox Judaism. I’m sure that there’s some reply or other for the Slaying of the Firstborn, and probably a dozen of them. My point is that, when it comes to spontaneous self-questioning, one is much more likely to spontaneously self-attack strong points with comforting replies to rehearse, than to spontaneously self-attack the weakest, most vulnerable points. Similarly, one is likely to stop at the first reply and be comforted, rather than further criticizing the reply. A better title than “Avoiding Your Belief’s Real Weak Points” would be “Not Spontaneously Thinking About Your Belief’s Most Painful Weaknesses.”
More than anything, the grip of religion is sustained by people just-not-thinking-about the real weak points of their religion. I don’t think this is a matter of training, but a matter of instinct. People don’t think about the real weak points of their beliefs for the same reason they don’t touch an oven’s red-hot burners; it’s painful.
To do better: When you’re doubting one of your most cherished beliefs, close your eyes, empty your mind, grit your teeth, and deliberately think about whatever hurts the most. Don’t rehearse standard objections whose standard counters would make you feel better. Ask yourself what smart people who disagree would say to your first reply, and your second reply. Whenever you catch yourself flinching away from an objection you fleetingly thought of, drag it out into the forefront of your mind. Punch yourself in the solar plexus. Stick a knife in your heart, and wiggle to widen the hole. In the face of the pain, rehearse only this:1
What is true is already so.
Owning up to it doesn’t make it worse.
Not being open about it doesn’t make it go away.
And because it’s true, it is what is there to be interacted with.
Anything untrue isn’t there to be lived.
People can stand what is true,
for they are already enduring it.
1Eugene T. Gendlin, Focusing (Bantam Books, 1982).
Science was weaker in these days
Could you elaborate on this? What do you mean by Science? (reasoning? knowledge?)
The thing whose weakness seems relevant to me is a cultural tradition of doubting religion. Also, prerequisites which I have trouble articulating because they are so deeply buried: perhaps a changing notion of benevolence.
That doesn't describe me at all. I was a full-bore Fred Phelps-style ultracalvinist (only an apathetic quietist rather than an activist). I was proud that my faith was so pure I could fully admit that God does this or that thing we find abhorrent because we are so pitiful in comparison to Him and His Plan that the very idea of questioning His Wisdom is laughable. I would say "You cannot question the goodness of His actions because there was no good before God defined it, whatever God does is good by virtue of His doing it and when you say one his actions is "bad" it is only a reflection of your complete inability to know what good is in comparison to Him". I believed in evolution and like you knew the importance of not having a human-centered perception of the world. God was not merely not a 20th century American, he was not human, was not of this planet or even of this universe. He was utterly incomprehensible, and what we did know of Him was only what he had chosen to let us (whose significance in His Plan we cannot know) hear, which left room for a dishonest and misleading approach to us (though we were to think of it as being as benevolent as a parent tellin... (read more)
I know it's not entirely on topic, but biblical physics seems like a more important test of the Bible's truth than God's morality. If God does not follow the arbitrary laws of human society, what does that prove? Nor does the Bible wrongly saying that God is merciful mean much - what would you do if you were God and had to write a book? But if the Bible accurately states the age of the Universe, that's something. In the end, the only important issue is whether you're going to hell or heaven.
I actually think it's rather irrational for someone to think that God's cruelty is an argument against His existence, and this seems a common opinion among atheists. I mean, I believe in Stalin, who also claimed to be a milkmaid's best friend while executing anyone who looked at him funny.
Tiiba: Because it is very hard to read ambiguity into moral acts. One can say that six days is not meant literally (even if the original language says that - though I'm not saying it does; I don't know). One cannot say that the firstborn of Egypt were all just sleeping.
Furthermore, one cannot explain away deception. Maybe God actually made the Universe in six days but wants us to think it was longer to test our faith. Yes, that's a lousy argument, but one might conceive of it being true. As for other offenses, God makes the laws of physics, so he obeys the... (read more)
TGGP, different people will rehearse different defenses, depending on what they think is strong - what they genuinely don't anticipate being called on, at least by themselves. You're an atheist now, so there was probably something you didn't think about, in the corner of your mind, which you can think about now. What was it?
Ha, this just happened to me. Luckily it wasn't too painful because I knew the weakness existed, I avoided it, and then reading E. T. Jaynes' "Probability Theory: The Logic of Science" gave me a different and much better belief to patch up my old one. Also, thanks for that recommendation. A lot.
For a while I had been what I called a Bayesian because I thought the frequentist position was incoherent and the Bayesian position elegant. But I couldn't resolve to my satisfaction the problem of scale parameters. I read that there was a prior that was i... (read more)
Tiiba: Also, most religions define God as being supremely good; evidence against the existence of a supremely good god is evidence against those religions even though it's consistent with some other religions almost no one believes in. To get from there to positive "I have good reason to believe there is no god of any sort" atheism requires further work, but if your only reason for believing in God in the first place was tied to a particular religion, and since observationally that's true of the great majority of theists (which suggests, for agreement-theorem-ish reasons, that maybe all the best reasons for believing in God have that characteristic) it provides grounds for not positively believing in God any more.
People don't think about the real weak points of their beliefs for the same reason they don't touch an oven's red-hot burners; it's painful.
Eliezer, unless I missed the analogy, people gloss the weak points to avoid finding themselves in error and avoid the pain of getting 'burned' by woeful ignorance. Perhaps I give humanity too much credit, but I think this is not the primary disincentive for most religious people. Laziness & Apathy are the first stage, where most people drop any thoughts they had of re-evalutating 'their' beliefs.
I observed this ten... (read more)
here here, living out what is not true is much more painful - and not just in the long run. it is more painful every day.
i grew up a christian. there is a parable about a man who gives up everything he has in order to find the "pearl of great price" which he knows is buried in a field. so he sells everything to buy the field, and then he is able to legally dig up the treasure. in other words he's done the work and has the right to the reward. i know this will sound crazy to most christians, but giving up christianity was my way of selling everything i had to find the pearl of great price.
Eliezer_Yudkowsky: This seems to contradict your previous trivialization of the "9/11 hijackers are cowardly" claim. If indeed probing our beliefs at their weak points is painful, backing away from this is a sign of cowardice. Blowing yourself up in an attempt to kill off the people who disagree with you, instead of intellectually confronting this, and exposing yourself to that pain of being wrong, is indeed cowardly, even if you are sacrificing something precious in the process.
Americans may feel unjustifiably comfortable in retreating to &quo... (read more)
Silas: Ah, so the US soldiers in Iraq are cowards because they shoot people instead of arguing intellectually with them?
Rationality is not the default state of a human being. It requires an effort just to get a human mind to the point where it perceives a scary duty of argument. I have no evidence that the 9/11 attackers got to this point, so I have no evidence that they were scared enough to be intellectual cowards.
I suppose in some sense I had not been a believer for some time, but my history of being a Christian had put in me a desire to be one whether or not I actually thought it was true. Like many youngsters I had started out with a primitive God-concept of the kindly old man in the sky variety who watches over us and occasionally intervenes sometimes. As I grew older and wiser I made omniscience, predeterminism and so on a more important part, so that God was now the inactive clock-maker (which seemed logical to me). The nature of God came to be shaped by what ... (read more)
To do better find someone smart who disagrees with you. He'll do a much better job of questioning your beliefs than you ever will.
Better still, find many such people.
That would be why I'm here. :3
When you're doubting one of your most cherished beliefs, close your eyes, empty your mind, grit your teeth, and deliberately think about whatever hurts the most.
This is good advice.
I started doing this around 9 years ago, because at the end of adolescence I experienced a sudden "mortality awareness". I imagine this is probably common -- that is, many people probably experience a moment in their life when the fact that they, too, are getting older, comes into sharp relief. But in my observation, most people seem to respond to this moment by sayi... (read more)
I call myself an atheist. However, I actually think believing in a vague god is based on probabilisticly rational and bayesian kind of thinking, at least for the limited context humans live in.
I say 'vague god' because I believe most people who believe there is a god and have somewhat solid arguments supporting this fact often use fallaciously the wrong level of conceptual abstraction to support their own specific god. The word god is not very well defined and there is quite a large margin around the definition to play with. I find the best arguments, lik... (read more)
Benoit: The universe may actually contain almost no information despite looking complex, just like (say) pi or e.
Anne: I love your comment. In Buddhism (as I understand), it is recommended to meditate every day on your death and the deaths of your loved ones, so you can consider the possibility without going crazy. I always thought that sounded like a good idea.
Nick: I'm not a Buddhist (definitely can't grok the reincarnation stuff), but in a lot of ways I can see where the Buddhists are coming from, especially with regard to "letting go of attachments".
I dunno Nick, your link implies the 'multiple universes' interpretation of quantum theory, and like Jaynes and Einstein, I tend to disagree with this interpretation. But yeah, I'm sure there exists some kind of physical explanation that when written down is more similar to a scientific article than a religious text. We just don't know it yet.
Many-worlds was invented by Everett in 1957. Einstein died in 1955. Einstein and Jaynes both disapproved of the Copenhagen interpretation - I have no evidence that either ever considered many-worlds or even heard of it. Both of them objected to inherent randomness, and MWI gets rid of this.
I see, that's is not how I had understood it. I guess I should just leave this stuff to physicists.
But Eliezer, Wikipedia says about the Copenhagen interpretation:
Aage Petersen paraphrasing Niels Bohr: "There is no quantum world. There is only an abstract physical description. It is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out how nature is. Physics concerns what we can say about nature."here is no quantum world. There is only an abstract physical description. It is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out how nature is. Physics concerns what we can say about nature."
Doesn't this imply that Bohr didn't believe in ... (read more)
Biblical literalism is a relatively new phenomenon, and mostly a Christian one. Jewish (and many Christian) theologians have for many, many centuries regarded such things as the seven-days, two-parents creation story as myths. The questions isn't whether the mythology is true in the sense that science is true; of course it isn't. The question is whether what the mythology is intended to communicate is true.
The moral offense that moderns tend to find in the story of the killing of Egypt's firstborn is rooted in our individualist morality. The ancient view w... (read more)
This brings up a point that has become clear to me - religion is to be attacked not on truth grounds, but on specific moral grounds, as concretely and personally as possible.
And yes, denial and evasion is the root of almost all crazy.
This rings so true. For years I've celebrated passover, without really considering what happened, or even if it was true. I'm glad my family is liberal enough, and I didn't ONLY rehearse the strong points, but it was interesting for me at the time how the creation myth uncannily fit in with the Big Bang theory.
That said, I was permitted to not only doubt, but not even have to defend. I just didn't follow my thoughts through. "Considering all this, is there any reason to actually worship a God, if that exists, which is unlikely? Moreso- oooh, youtube ... (read more)
How has Rationality, as a universal theory (or near-universal) on decision making, confronted its most painful weaknesses? What are rationality's weak points? The more broad a theory is claimed to be, the more important it seems to really test the theory's weaknesses -- that is why I assume you bring up religion, but the same standard should apply to rationality. This is not a cute question from a religious person, more of an intellectual inquiry from a person hoping to learn. In honor of the grand-daddy of cognitive biases, confirmation bias, doesn't rati... (read more)
In fact, when used properly it's an entirely overt attempt to manipulate speakers, in order to influence the speaking that goes on in ways that the site prefers, and it is specifically endorsed by the site for that purpose. (It is also frequently used to express annoyance or to manipulate speakers for other purposes, which the site may or may not endorse.)
I think "the way the site prefers" just equates to the way the site prefers. When you're hanging out on the site, the way the site prefers is more relevant to you than this other "Good" thing.
Please provide evidence. I challenge this claim.
"Listening to objections" is not what provides the highest expected utility based on my information and model of the world. By my previous definition, rationality meant winning and being less wrong. Using those tools, I determine that listening to objections is not the best way to be less wrong or win.
Edit: Also, I really think this whole thread should go here, judging by the current trend of discourse.
Yes, definitely. But when there is a large number of objections, rationality also means prioritizing which objections to address with which allocation of resources. And the site prefers to address those objections that aren't wrapped in threats and insults. =]
The fact of an otherwise unexceptional objection is only evidence against an idea when you get more objections than you'd expect an arbitrary true idea in its reference class to get. Ideas touching on political or identity issues, for example, can be expected to garner a certain proportion of objections merely from tribal effects, with no particular implications for truth value.
Th... (read more)
Please don't confuse rationality (a collection of methods) with philosophical rationalism.
While the Munchausen Trilemma isn't mentioned by name in the article, the ideas behind it are pretty thoroughly examined in The Useful Idea Of Truth
Typo: "then" should be "than."
Can anyone point out the weakest points in christianity? You need to know enough about it and you need to give it considerable thought.
(I am christian. As long as I can remember I have adopted a mindset of skeptical thinking and self doubt, but since I in real life don´t know many people who are smarter than me and knows enough to say anything about christianity, I ask you. My mom is agnostic and pretty clever, but she can come up with better arguments for a God than I can. A fair warning, I doubt that many here knows enough about christianity to actuall... (read more)
I take it "evangelic", as you're using it, is not identical to the fairly common term "evangelical" despite its obvious shared etymology? Evangelicalism as generally understood is hard to reconcile with calling the OT "old rubbish". I guess you're using it to mean something like "centred on the gospels".
I'd have a pretty good idea of your likely position on lots of things if you were an evangelical in the usual sense (inerrancy of scripture or something close to it, salvation sola fide, strongly substitutionary theory of the atonement, relatively more stress on personal faith and relationship-with-God rather than more corporate things, inclined to skepticism about anything that could be labelled "tradition" or "ritual", etc., etc., etc., etc.) but unfortunately what you've said here isn't terribly indicative.
They weren't answers, they were (as I said in so many words) brief gestures in the direction of possible answers. If you think I would think half a dozen words would convince you of anything, ... (read more)
After reading a sizable amount of your responses, I have to ask if your interest is truly in finding weak points of your religion, or if you are merely trying to defend your beliefs to a (largely) atheist audience--possibly hoping to win a few converts, or at the very least trying to reassure yourself of your beliefs.
I think that Eliezer oversimplifies religious beliefs. People who have witnessed terrible things have kept their faith. People who have witnessed their loved ones being killed and tortured still have clung on to their r... (read more)
...wait, so if I don't want to believe in a God whose morality is ineffable, who has power over time and matter, and has, they say, surgically altered the course of history on a number of occasions (think the Flood), does it mean I'm making this exact mistake, avoiding my [atheistic] belief's real weak point? I mean, I can't remember any 'manifestation of God's power' that happened in peopled regions which didn't hurt anyone. If he exists, and is supposedly powerful, what are the woes of Egyptian firstborn to me if he can just wipe out the universe?..
This feeling, anger and not being allowed to doubt, was what I felt after reading Andersen's The little match girl.
I am new to Bayesian Rationality, and it seems to me to be an ideal worth pursuing. I have so far read only Yudkowsky, and am compling a "further reading list" to continue my journey to reducing my irrationality. Please bear with me as I give you some personal context to my comments. I am a religious, practicing Jew. I don't label myself "Orthodox" or "Modern Orthodox", although I attended an Orthodox Yeshiva and live in a Modern Orthodox community, because a lot of what colors the cultural manifestation of the Jewish rel... (read more)
Being a Marxist at one time, I also suffered from this problem.
Thank you for this and particularly the last paragraph.
I think there have been pieces of this essay floating around in my brain for a while but for some reason I have never been able to put them together so clearly and beautifully, as you have done here.
I've seen Yudkowsky make this point in a couple places (why bother inflicting mass infanticide etc. etc. when you're presumably omnipotent and could teleport everyone to safety) and it makes me blink, something about the argument feels off. Are there cases in the scriptures where God teleports large numbers of people large di... (read more)
Having studied quite a few of the world's religions, I'd have to say that, in a lot of cases, it's a map-territory error writ large.
If you take the major religions that have survived for thousands of years and extrapolate out their teachings to their logical conclusions, and ruthlessly chop out the contradictions, it seems an awful lot like "God" could be defined as "Whatever it is that defines the fundamental nature of life, the universe, and everything."
The ancients tended to think of it as a sapient, thinking, possibly living being. Because that's... (read more)
I don't know how much it'd be a new thing, but Kardec's spiritism is very familiar to the Orthodox Judaism.
I grew up on Brazil spiritism and it's a sophisticated way to address science through a third revealing. And many answers of the Spirit of Truth on the The Spirit's Book are scientifically accurate, but just with the epoch science (it's harder to argue that XIX Century French people couldn't understand that spirits live on the vacuum or another dimension, but the Spirit of Truth goes ahead and tells Kardec that in fact "There is an ethereal flui... (read more)
I'm new to this blog, still making my way through the Sequence Highlights, so I'm still going through the process of applying rationalist critiques to myself for the first time. In this spirit, I asked myself if I avoid my beliefs' real weaknesses when I attempt to challenge my political ideology (I am not religious, so that seemed like the next best thing). The answer is: no, of course I don't. But I think it for reasons not described in this post. Frankly, the reason I instinctively challenge the strongest points of my political ideology is because these... (read more)