The criticism is sometimes leveled against rationalists:  "The Inquisition thought they had the truth!  Clearly this 'truth' business is dangerous."

There are many obvious responses, such as "If you think that possessing the truth would license you to torture and kill, you're making a mistake that has nothing to do with epistemology."  Or, "So that historical statement you just made about the Inquisition—is it true?"

Reversed stupidity is not intelligence:  "If your current computer stops working, you can't conclude that everything about the current system is wrong and that you need a new system without an AMD processor, an ATI video card... even though your current system has all these things and it doesn't work.  Maybe you just need a new power cord."  To arrive at a poor conclusion requires only one wrong step, not every step wrong.  The Inquisitors believed that 2 + 2 = 4, but that wasn't the source of their madness.  Maybe epistemological realism wasn't the problem either?

It does seem plausible that if the Inquisition had been made up of relativists, professing that nothing was true and nothing mattered, they would have mustered less enthusiasm for their torture.  They would also have had been less enthusiastic if lobotomized.  I think that's a fair analogy.

And yet... I think the Inquisition's attitude toward truth played a role.  The Inquisition believed that there was such a thing as truth, and that it was important; well, likewise Richard Feynman.  But the Inquisitors were not Truth-Seekers.  They were Truth-Guardians.

I once read an argument (can't find source) that a key component of a zeitgeist is whether it locates its ideals in its future or its past.  Nearly all cultures before the Enlightenment believed in a Fall from Grace—that things had once been perfect in the distant past, but then catastrophe had struck, and everything had slowly run downhill since then:

"In the age when life on Earth was full...  They loved each other and did not know that this was 'love of neighbor'. They deceived no one yet they did not know that they were 'men to be trusted'. They were reliable and did not know that this was 'good faith'. They lived freely together giving and taking, and did not know that they were generous. For this reason their deeds have not been narrated. They made no history."
        —The Way of Chuang Tzu, trans. Thomas Merton

The perfect age of the past, according to our best anthropological evidence, never existed.  But a culture that sees life running inexorably downward is very different from a culture in which you can reach unprecedented heights. 

(I say "culture", and not "society", because you can have more than one subculture in a society.)

You could say that the difference between e.g. Richard Feynman and the Inquisition was that the Inquisition believed they had truth, while Richard Feynman sought truth.  This isn't quite defensible, though, because there were undoubtedly some truths that Richard Feynman thought he had as well.  "The sky is blue," for example, or "2 + 2 = 4".

Yes, there are effectively certain truths of science.  General Relativity may be overturned by some future physics—albeit not in any way that predicts the Sun will orbit Jupiter; the new theory must steal the successful predictions of the old theory, not contradict them.  But evolutionary theory takes place on a higher level of organization than atoms, and nothing we discover about quarks is going to throw out Darwinism, or the cell theory of biology, or the atomic theory of chemistry, or a hundred other brilliant innovations whose truth is now established beyond reasonable doubt.

Are these "absolute truths"?  Not in the sense of possessing a probability of literally 1.0.  But they are cases where science basically thinks it's got the truth.

And yet scientists don't torture people who question the atomic theory of chemistry.  Why not?  Because they don't believe that certainty licenses torture?  Well, yes, that's the surface difference; but why don't scientists believe this?

Because chemistry asserts no supernatural penalty of eternal torture for disbelieving in the atomic theory of chemistry?  But again we recurse and ask the question, "Why?"  Why don't chemists believe that you go to hell if you disbelieve in the atomic theory?

Because journals won't publish your paper until you get a solid experimental observation of Hell?  But all too many scientists can suppress their skeptical reflex at will.  Why don't chemists have a private cult which argues that nonchemists go to hell, given that many are Christians anyway?

Questions like that don't have neat single-factor answers.  But I would argue that one of the factors has to do with assuming a defensive posture toward the truth, versus a productive posture toward the truth.

When you are the Guardian of the Truth, you've got nothing useful to contribute to the Truth but your guardianship of it.  When you're trying to win the Nobel Prize in chemistry by discovering the next benzene or buckyball, someone who challenges the atomic theory isn't so much a threat to your worldview as a waste of your time.

When you are a Guardian of the Truth, all you can do is try to stave off the inevitable slide into entropy by zapping anything that departs from the Truth.  If there's some way to pump against entropy, generate new true beliefs along with a little waste heat, that same pump can keep the truth alive without secret police.  In chemistry you can replicate experiments and see for yourself—and that keeps the precious truth alive without need of violence.

And it's not such a terrible threat if we make one mistake somewhere—end up believing a little untruth for a little while—because tomorrow we can recover the lost ground.

But this whole trick only works because the experimental method is a "criterion of goodness" which is not a mere "criterion of comparison".  Because experiments can recover the truth without need of authority, they can also override authority and create new true beliefs where none existed before.

Where there are criteria of goodness that are not criteria of comparison, there can exist changes which are improvements, rather than threats.  Where there are only criteria of comparison, where there's no way to move past authority, there's also no way to resolve a disagreement between authorities.  Except extermination.  The bigger guns win.

I don't mean to provide a grand overarching single-factor view of history.  I do mean to point out a deep psychological difference between seeing your grand cause in life as protecting, guarding, preserving, versus discovering, creating, improving.  Does the "up" direction of time point to the past or the future?  It's a distinction that shades everything, casts tendrils everywhere.

This is why I've always insisted, for example, that if you're going to start talking about "AI ethics", you had better be talking about how you are going to improve on the current situation using AI, rather than just keeping various things from going wrong.  Once you adopt criteria of mere comparison, you start losing track of your ideals—lose sight of wrong and right, and start seeing simply "different" and "same".

I would also argue that this basic psychological difference is one of the reasons why an academic field that stops making active progress tends to turn mean.  (At least by the refined standards of science.  Reputational assassination is tame by historical standards; most defensive-posture belief systems went for the real thing.)  If major shakeups don't arrive often enough to regularly promote young scientists based on merit rather than conformity, the field stops resisting the standard degeneration into authority.  When there's not many discoveries being made, there's nothing left to do all day but witch-hunt the heretics.

To get the best mental health benefits of the discover/create/improve posture, you've got to actually be making progress, not just hoping for it.

New Comment
55 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since:
But the Inquisitors were not Truth-Seekers. They were Truth-Guardians.

"What is true, and valid, does not require defense." -- Diane Duane

The Inquisitors were not Truth-Guardians. They were Doctrine-Guardians. That is a very different matter. Truth does not require guarding. Doctrines often do.

It's amusing to see 'criterion of goodness' as a simile for 'criterion of correctness'. The Inquisition believed they were both 'correct' and 'good'. In torturing you, they were saving your soul, which was, for them, the ultimate in Utility. So, in calculating utility, beware of your assumptions.

Sounds a lot like this paper by Chris Phoenix.

nothing we discover about quarks is going to throw out Darwinism

Hah, tell that to the people who say "Darwinism" is based on a "debunked deterministic metaphysics".

The "standard degeneration" link is broken.

Caledonian: "Truth does not require guarding."

Doesn't it, though? If a minority that happens to know a truth, but they all keep quiet about it, what's to keep the masses from remaining ignorant indefinitely? Of course (tautologically) the truth will still be true whether or not anyone knows it, but I get the sense that you were implying something less trivial.

If the masses don't want to invest in learning the truth, then they won't learn it, but you'd need some extremely totalitarian guarding to prevent that. However if the truth happens to permit you to achieve useful things in a subject, then that is leverage that can be used to inspire some part of the masses to learn it.

If a minority that happens to know a truth, but they all keep quiet about it, what's to keep the masses from remaining ignorant indefinitely?

In my experience, loudly proclaiming an unfamiliar truth is one of the best ways to keep people ignorant.

The only sorts of knowledge that need to be protected and preserved are the ones that involve contingency: biodiversity, history, paleontology and archeology, etc. can all be harmed if their data is lost. Undying truths can always be rediscovered no matter how many times they're lost.


When nearby (in idea space) nodes encounter an unfamiliar truth, that unfamiliar truth attracts new adherents, mostly early-adopters. Those early adopters will be few if the truth is obviously crazy or "losing." Once early adopters grow to a "viable network" threshold, they are adopted more easily, by conformists. Such unfamiliar truths, following this progression, do not remain unfamiliar long.

This is how popular untruths come into being, often with force at their core. Such popular untruths then "max out" at a certain high percentage, and rationalists either fight against them, or ignore them. Some popular untruths then proceed to kill all the rationalists, delaying progress. ( When Lilburne, Walwin, and Overton died, there weren't really any equals to follow them, but the Quakers took their principles to the USA. Progress fell behind in England, but it continued in new networks.)

There may be limits to the types of truths that a majority can hold onto, given the random distribution of sociopaths and conformists. The sociopaths tend to capture conformist networks and put them to use/servitude. This is the nature of most of the planet's surface right now, to some large extent. In this case, the majority won't rediscover the truth, but the minority never lost it.

[This comment is no longer endorsed by its author]Reply

When you speak of "guardians of truth" I hear "guardians of social order." I don't think the Inquisition thought of truth in epistemic terms, the way we do. They thought of "truth" as the order of the world that was under constant assault by dark forces.

Truth guardianship in science might be understood as defending Kuhnian "normal science" from assault by people outside of the dominant paradigm; or perhaps the process of indoctrinating new scientists in the accepted norms of that paradigm.


Kary Mullis talks about this, in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech:

[This comment is no longer endorsed by its author]Reply

The perfect age of the past, according to our best anthropological evidence, never existed.

Minor point: in defense of the esteemed Taoist, I would argue Chuang Tzu was speaking of the time humans were small groups of hunter-gatherers. Based on my understanding of Jared Diamond's "Agriculture: the worst mistake in the history of the human race".

Back on the point of your post. I am not ashamed to say I listen to Zig Ziglar tapes (I probably should be). His folksy way of putting it is "Do you want to be a learner, or learned?" With "learned" implying that you have mastered a system of thought perfectly suited for a receding past.

I would argue Chuang Tzu was speaking of the time humans were small groups of hunter-gatherers.

Small groups of hunter-gatherers were only nice to each other within the group. I would much rather live in a world where it's accepted to lie to your neighbor than one where it's accepted to murder someone who isn't.

Hunter-gatherers also resorted to murder in-group too.

Did Chuang Tzu know that much about the ancient history of humans, really?


[This comment is no longer endorsed by its author]Reply

What do you mean by that?


I just put up a series of posts about Merton that I think you’d enjoy at:

If you believe in G-d then you believe in a being that can change reality just by willing it. So therefore you believe it's possible for consciousness to change/control existence.

So that could explain why Guardians fear too many non-believers: they feel threatened by what they perceive as the power of other people's consciousness. They fear that if there are too many non-believers that it might change the truth somehow.

But scientists (Seekers) know that reality is what it is regardless of what other people think, so they don't ascribe so much power to their fellow beings, and therefore don't feel as threatened by them.


Christians believe that God doesn't change reality just by willing it. No one really knows how he supposedly created the universe. The theory is that Jesus doesn't perform miracles by bending the laws of nature. I'll explain: Potassium + water = big explosion. But if you added something to the water or to the potassium, you could keep it from exploding. So, on earth, nothing ever happens to water that will turn it into wine. But if God exerted a supernatual force on it, it would, without bending the laws of nature. The idea is that the laws of nature incorporate supernatual meddling, but these are laws that we may never discover because we can't meddle with things supernatualy. God doesn't change reality. And anyways, the Guardians thought that God was all-powerful, and that humans weren't, so I'm not even sure they're thoughts went down that road.

[This comment is no longer endorsed by its author]Reply

Presumably God, if He exists, implements this by having a Universe that's inherently stochastic. :)


If stochastic means what I think it means (random) then yup! Water + divine intervention = wine. But it had to be weird to attract people's attention. Or there's something about the universe that would make sense of all this that we don't know yet. O_o

[This comment is no longer endorsed by its author]Reply

If you believe in G-d then you believe in a being that can change reality just by willing it

OK, so by that definition...if you instead believe in a perfect rationalist that has achieved immortality, lived longer than we can meaningfully express, and now operates technology that is sufficiently advanced to be indistinguishable from magic, including being involved in the formation of planets, then - what label should you use instead of 'G-d'?

Khepri Prime, if the sequel to "Worm" goes the way I hope. More seriously, I don't believe any of that, and physics sadly appears to make some of it impossible even in the far future. Most of us would balk at that first word, "perfect," citing logical impossibility results and their relation to idealized induction. So your question makes you seem - let us say disconnected from the discussion. Would you happen to be assuming we reject theism because we see it as low status, and not because there aren't any gods?

"Would you happen to be assuming we reject theism..."

Some LWers reject theism because they see it as low status, some for better reasons, and some do not reject it.

I do have an opinion on your personal motivations as opposed to those of other LWers, but it would be obviously unproductive to give it. So it is also an unproductive question.

I'd probably have to invent a name for it. Or I might use the term "godlike being", implying that the being has some, but not all, characteristics in common with what people think of as God.

There's "demigod" or if you like the Eastern flavour, "bodhisattva".

"Undying truths can always be rediscovered no matter how many times they're lost."

At potentially prohibitive expense. Can you imagine trying to start physics over again, from the beginning?

It feels to me like the cost would be roughly proportional to how much is lost. Or maybe quadratic or something in how much is lost.

Like on the margin we probably regularly lose and rediscover unimportant physical discoveries, because it's just too expensive to keep track of them. If there was some very important law that was magically lost with nothing else changed, then it would probably not take very long to stitch it together from context and observations.

But these observations would be based on advanced measurement devices that have been constructed in part using knowledge from physics, and the other context would also to a great extent be knowledge in physics.

If everything was missing - physics knowledge, measurement devices, even people who knew what could in theory be achieved - then yeah, that does seem prohibitively expensive to restore.

But that also seems to imply a very extreme case. Like with that much regress, having someone around to guard the truth probably isn't sufficient to preserve it, instead it more seems like a societal destruction thing that needs to be averted. If society could continually identify and fix problems then this probably wouldn't happen at all.

The greatest expense would be time. Trying to rediscover a science, from the beginning, in one or a handful of generations would require crushing amounts of money and work. If any science is ever so thoroughly lost, it would be hopeless to expect it to be retrieved so rapidly - it could only be a long-term project.

I don't think it would be too bad, though. Look at how rapidly science has developed since the end of the Dark Ages.

If we instantly forgot everything known about gravity, and even forgot calculus, but we kept the existing economic infrastructure of science and math - computers, professional mathematicians of roughly equivalent skill level who happen not to know calculus, billions of dollars a year in R&D funding, etc. - then calculus would be discovered in a month (though it wouldn't be rigorous), Newton's laws a week later, and Einstein's general relativity before the year was out. That's seriously my best estimate for how long it would take.

I once read an argument (can't find source) that a key component of a zeitgeist is whether it locates its ideals in its future or its past.

David Brin has written about this in his discussions of Star Wars (here and here) and Lord of the Rings.

Beaten to the punch on Brin. Mencius Moldbug provides an interesting contrast on the ideal of "progress", though I can't decide on a specific post to single out.

Regarding the Inquisition, there are some who claim that that our conception of it is the result of the same sort of Protestant "black legend" type propaganda that causes us to think of Gustavus Adolphus as a hero but Wallenstein as a villain. Don't know myself, but I find the idea interesting.

an academic field that stops making active progress tends to turn mean. Which ones were you thinking of? I know you don't want to upset people here, but you seem to be making a claim without providing any evidence. Lysenkoism, perhaps?

The Inquisitors were not Truth-Guardians. They were Doctrine-Guardians. That is a very different matter. Truth does not require guarding. Doctrines often do. I thought that was what made a doctrine a doctrine. At any rate, since the Inquisitors believed it was true, I don't have a problem calling them Truth-Guardians.

Prediction markets are a great way to turn the tables in favor of seekers vs guardians. The guardians will bankrupt themselves trying to keep the "correct" beliefs high in price while the seekers will advantageously extract more and more money from them.

Eliezer, can we get some confidence intervals on those time estimations? If nothing else, I'd like to know what your thought process is about what would go into rediscovering calculus in a month.

I'd like to know what his thought processes are on a disaster that could wipe out all hardcopy and memories of a subject, but leave the research infrastructure intact.

"The Inquisition thought they had the truth! Clearly this 'truth' business is dangerous."

The Inquisition was not that unusual. Religious and political loyalties tended to be quite entwined, so most states discriminated against believers in the wrong religion, sometimes banning such religions entirely. This naturally led to people carrying on the old (or new) beliefs in secret.

So the Inquisition was empowered to go looking for those secret heretics.

There were large, bloody and religiously inspired wars in Britain, France and Germany, to name but three.

There were none in Spain or Portugal, so perhaps the Inquisition did more good than you think.


This website kinda beats up on Christianity a lot . . . I'm sure that there are plenty of other influental religions to bang on . . .

[This comment is no longer endorsed by its author]Reply

Sure, but Shinto doesn't get so pushy about boneheaded cosmological claims. Mostly they just dance. Where's the fun in arguing with that?

Well, they do charge for purification rituals and so on (modern Shinto shrines are basically businesses, they have to get their money somewhere,) but I don't think anyone on this site has ever felt pressured to pay for their services.

Making a living by performing standardized services for money on the open market is pretty much the opposite of the sort of thought and behavior this site tends to "bang on."

Well, we've got a lot of libertarian and libertarian-leaning members, but I think a lot of people here are also not so hot on businesses like, say, homeopathy, which provide goods or services on the presumption that they do something that they actually don't.

How is this "beating up on Christianity"? Pseudonymous is saying that the Inquisition - the main counterargument to the claim that Christianity is good for society - was actually justified. That seems like defending Christianity to me.


Chuang Tzu was referring to the hunter-gatherers.

Is there any evidence that he was? How would he have had knowledge of hunter-gatherer tribes? This sounds suspiciously like over-fitting.


Perhaps the difference between the Inquisition and Feynman is that science specifically claims it has nothing to say about morality, so it can't justify killing anyone in its name.

Science has much to say about morality. It can say which morals different groups of people have, what are probable causes for morals, and which morals are useful on an gene|individual|group|society|planet level.

what are probable causes for morals

That's not science, that's story-telling.

which morals are useful on an gene|individual|group|society|planet level

That's not science, that's preaching.

On your view, does science have anything to say about the probable causes for gastric enzymes, eyeballs, or toenails?

I think it's easier to go deeper yet simpler. I would say that this is close, but still missing "Questions like that don't have neat single-factor answers. But I would argue that one of the factors has to do with assuming a defensive posture toward the truth, versus a productive posture toward the truth."

and: "When people connect their personal value and self-esteem to a given belief they're prone to persecute anyone claiming that given belief to be false, since they see that claim as undermining their reason to exist".

Or more plainly: Debates become existential struggles for some people, because they ultimately do not separate themselves from their believes and opinions. Hence they react extremely strongly to any perceived threat to their belief or opinion; occasionally as strongly (or stronger) than had their physical person been threatened with extinction.

I think you have just captured the essence of what makes the Enlightenment culture different from all the others. It's also why people who aren't yet quite sold on the Enlightenment project have so much trouble understanding us; they are used to harkening back to the "good old days", and when we tell them, "No, the past was terrible; you'd die of malaria or get burned at the stake" they don't understand. They think we have no values, because we have no authorities on value. They think we don't believe in truth because we locate the truth in the future instead of the past.

(It doesn't help that there are moral relativists who actually say things like "There is no such thing as truth" and "anyone's values are as good as anyone else's". Maybe we should be spending more time refuting and repudiating such people.)

I even see this among people who mostly accept the basic ideals of rationality and science; they do things like quote Thomas Jefferson as if Jefferson were one of the ancient prophets who knew all the deep truths we have since forgotten. The man owned slaves! He was right about a lot of things, but also wrong about a lot of other things; you should be quoting him only to talk about his ideas, not yours. Similar things happen when people harken back to the US Constitution, or the writings of Ayn Rand. It's not even that wrong---it's surely better than the Bible or the Qur'an---but you're missing the whole point if you hold up a chunk of cellulose and say it's the truth. You should be pointing outside, at the world.

I think someone is failing to consider that sometimes truth gets mixed with politics. When truth and politics mix, it suddenly becomes very significant whether other people accept your truth or not. People become not just wrong, but enemy. Can this concept be dis-entwined from the concept of authoritarian guardianship of non-recoverable truth?

For example, I would say that Democrats are supposed to be forward-looking and in favor of knowledge and science, yet I'm quite sure that many Democrats would be opposed to scientific studies that show ineffectiveness of one of their social programs.

I forget where I saw this (might actually have been elsewhere on LW?), but I encountered the idea that a component of the backward-reverent ages was the Roman Empire. When your civilization is built on the remnants of Roman roads that are better than anything you can make, it's forgivable to view the world as having fallen from grace.


There is not one "truth value" in any person. Every person is a network of truth values, on all different subjects. Some are closely linked to one another, others not. Every truth exists in a hierarchy of importance.

Most people have crude heuristics. Other people (like Kurzweil, Freitas, Drexler) have well-developed hierarchies of importance, relationships, accuracy, relevance to other subjects, etc.

Any time my networked truth values, as nodes, exchange information with reality, they can be altered, updated, or solidified, based on the input, and output back to the message sender. The more communication, the more the true pattern of reality is reflected in my network, to the extent I am intelligent.

The unintelligent have little choice but to defend the limited truth they comprehend. If they properly perceive the morality of the domain they are considering, and it is a moral domain, they are obligated to defend it. This is why Penn Jilette doesn't mind preaching directed at him: he prefers honest to accuracy. If people think he's damned unless he accepts Jesus, he says he'd be upset if people didn't debate the issue with him.

I'd be annoyed, but I see his point: The domain of the truth you believe, and the amount of difference in others in your environment determines how useful you judge the truth to be. Your value judgment of your message informs others' receipt of your message. They then let you know whether they think your value judgment is accurate.

So long as force is disallowed, this is the optimum, even if it doesn't seem so to dispassionate rationalists.

After all, I might be critical of radical Islamists on their way to shoot up cartoonists. If he vociferously sends out the idea that apostates or infidels should be killed (because otherwise he believes his world would end, or whatever) then I have a lot to be thankful for. I may have my hand on my pistol, but I tell him he's 100% full of shit, and counter his claims with logic. Maybe the logic convinces him, but even if it doesn't the value judgment he's given me has informed me that I'm in a dangerous situation.

The same rules apply to the highly intelligent, but there will be less vociferous communication from them. Why? Because getting into vociferous communications with people isn't smart, unless a meteorite is headed for your city. There's no reason to get agitated, in most conversations.

So the lunatics send out more vociferous communications. OK, got it. We're used to them. But that's also useful, because the more lunatics there are, the more they're identified, and the more we can assess the health of society: It either creates a lot of lunatics who have occasion to be loud and boisterous, or it creates very few. In either case, them being honest is overall good for society, even though we don't want to hear them.

...And occasionally, there's a Kary Mullis who gets called a lunatic, but whose excellent vociferously-communicated ideas are at least equal to his crazy ones. So long as he can't impose his crazy ones on anyone with violence, the presence of his ranting is purely benevolent.

Moreover, let's say that western civilization breaks down, and we're all subjugated to Islam (or Christianity, etc.). Well, then perhaps the central nodes upon which the others rest, the ones that have been very solidified by feedback and experience, take over. Then, it's time for retaliatory force.

The truth nodes that are "protective" should deal with force. But those nodes should be very few, very small, and never used in normal situations.

Moreover: It's not useful to hunt the heretics, but it is useful to send out messages that present an alternate truth. There's no reason to "go negative" unless you're asked about the truth. Then, sure, speak the truth, reveal that you believe that "idea X" is a crazy idea, from a damaged brain, and that you're happy to debate "idea X". The willingness to put mutually-exclusive ideas into conflict with one another is another core node of western civilization, and science itself.

[This comment is no longer endorsed by its author]Reply