Is Spirituality Irrational?

by lisper3 min read9th Feb 2016430 comments


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[Originally published at Intentional Insights in response to Religious and Rational]

Spirituality and rationality seem completely opposed. But are they really?


To get at this question, let's start with a little thought experiment.  Consider the following two questions:


1.  If you were given a choice between reading a physical book (or an e-book) or listening to an audiobook, which would you prefer?


2.  If you were given a choice between listening to music, or looking at the grooves of a phonograph record through a microscope, which would you prefer?


But I am more interested in the answer to a third question:


3.  For which of the first two questions do you have a stronger preference between the two options?


Most people will have a stronger preference in the second case than the first.  But why?  Both situations are in some sense the same: there is information being fed into your brain, in one case through your ears and in the other through your eyes.  So why should people's preference for ears be so much stronger in the case of music than books?


There is something in the essence of music that is lost in the translation between an audio and a visual rendering.  The same loss happens for words too, but to a much lesser extent.  Subtle shades of emphasis and tone of voice can convey essential information in spoken language. This is one of the reasons that email is so notorious for amplifying misunderstandings.  But the loss in much greater in the case of music.  


The same is true for other senses.  Color is one example.  A blind person can abstractly understand what light is, and that color is a byproduct of the wavelength of light, and that light is a form of electromagnetic radiation... yet there is no way for a blind person to experience subjectively the difference between red and blue and green.  But just because some people can't see colors doesn't mean that colors aren't real.


The same is true for spiritual experiences.


Now, before I expand that thought, I want to give you my bona fides.  I am a committed rationalist, and an atheist (though I don't like to self-identify as an atheist because I'd rather focus on what I *do* believe in rather than what I don't).  So I am not trying to convince you that God exists.  What I want to say is rather that certain kinds of spiritual experiences *might* be more than mere fantasies made up out of whole cloth. If we ignore this possibility we risk shutting ourselves off from a vital part of the human experience.


I grew up in the deep south (Kentucky and Tennessee) in a secular Jewish family.  When I was 12 my parents sent me to a Christian summer camp (there were no other kinds in Kentucky back in those days).  After a week of being relentlessly proselytized (read: teased and ostracized), I decided I was tired of being the camp punching bag and so I relented and gave my heart to Jesus.  I prayed, confessed my sins, and just like that I was a member of the club.


I experienced a euphoria that I cannot render into words, in exactly the same way that one cannot render into words the subjective experience of listening to music or seeing colors or eating chocolate or having sex.  If you have not experienced these things for yourself, no amount of description can fill the gap.  Of course, you can come to an *intellectual* understanding that "feeling the presence of the holy spirit" has nothing to do with any holy spirit. You can intellectually grasp that it is an internal mental process resulting from (probably) some kind of neurotransmitter released in response to social and internal mental stimulus.  But that won't allow you to understand *what it is like* any more than understanding physics will let you understand what colors look like or what music sounds like.


Happily, there are ways to stimulate the subjective experience that I'm describing other than accepting Jesus as your Lord and Savior. Meditation, for example, can produce similar results.  It can be a very powerful experience.  It can even become addictive, almost like a drug.


I am not necessarily advocating that you go try to get yourself a hit of religious euphoria (though I wouldn’t discourage you either -- the experience can give you some interesting and useful perspective on life).  Instead, I simply want to convince you to entertain the possibility that people might profess to believe in God for reasons other than indoctrination or stupidity.  Religious texts and rituals might be attempts to share real subjective experiences that, in the absence of a detailed modern understanding of neuroscience, can appear to originate from mysterious, subtle external sources.


The reason I want to convince you to entertain this notion is that an awful lot of energy gets wasted by arguing against religious beliefs on logical grounds, pointing out contradictions in the Bible and whatnot. Such arguments tend to be ineffective, which can be very frustrating for those who advance them. The antidote for this frustration is to realize that spirituality is not about logic.  It's about subjective experiences that not everyone is privy to.  Logic is about looking at the grooves.  Spirituality is about hearing the music.


The good news is that adopting science and reason doesn’t mean you have to give up on spirituality any more than you have to give up on music. There are myriad paths to spiritual experience, to a sense of awe and wonder at the grand tapestry of creation, to the essential existential mysteries of life and consciousness, to what religious people call “God.” Walking in the woods. Seeing the moons of Jupiter through a telescope. Gathering with friends to listen to music, or to sing, or simply to share the experience of being alive. Meditation. Any of these can be spiritual experiences if you allow them to be. In this sense, God is everywhere.


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I simply want to convince you to entertain the possibility that people might profess to believe in God for reasons other than indoctrination or stupidity.

Why do you think any convincing is necessary?

arguing against religious beliefs on logical grounds [...] spirituality is not about logic. It's about subjective experiences [...]

Religious beliefs and subjective experiences are quite separate things, at least in principle. If someone simply says "I went to church and had this amazing experience", I don't think even the strawmanniest Spockiest stereotypical rationalist would have much quarrel with that. But here in the real world, actual religious people tend not just to say "I had this amazing experience" but to go further and say "I believe in God, the Father Almighty, creator of all things seen and unseen, and in one Lord Jesus Christ", or "Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord is one", or whatever.

(They not infrequently go further still and say "you must do X and not do Y, because God says so", or attempt to get laws made requiring X and forbidding Y, or in very extreme cases blow things up in an attempt to intimidat... (read more)

3lisper5yYes, of course I don't deny that. The point is that the reason that they say these things (and maybe even actually believe these things) is because of subjective experiences that they have personally experienced which people who do not believe have not had (and who do not believe because they have not had those subjective experiences). This piece was originally written for a different audience than the hard-core rationalists that hang out here on Less Wrong. I probably should have taken that sentence out before posting it here. Sorry about that.
1gjm5yAs I've remarked elsewhere in the thread [], the fact (when it is one) that their belief is based on their subjective experiences is no reason why it shouldn't be the subject of argument. Neither does that fact mean that their belief isn't the result of "indoctrination or stupidity". (Of course it needn't be. But if you interpret a euphoric altered-consciousness experience as indicating the presence of a god who, say, is composed in a mysterious way of three persons in a single substance, disapproves of gay sex, approves of forgiveness, and walked the earth a couple of thousand years ago until he got nailed to a tree, that can be the result of indoctrination or stupidity just as easily as if you draw the same conclusions from the beauty of the natural world or from the presence of claims along those lines in a particular set of old documents.) It's OK. I hope you didn't mind my snarkiness too much.
2Gleb_Tsipursky5yI think an interesting implication of this piece is that instead of arguing about the reality of the experiences of religious people, it would be helpful to empathize with religious people about their experiences, and even use the term "spiritual" if it resonates with them. Saying something like: "oh wow, that must have been really powerful" and sharing a personal euphoric experience might help them be more open to subsequent discussions, and prevent the backfire effect [].
2torekp5yI would like to take this opportunity to note that "religious beliefs" is not redundant; that belief is not even a particularly important part of many religions. Not that you said anything to the contrary. But to a lot of readers of this site, Bible-thumping Christians, to whom belief is paramount, are over-represented in the mental prototype of "religion".
0gjm5yYup, all agreed.

I have started writing a comment multiple times, only to remove what I wrote mid-sentence. I think I figured out why that is: your post is tempting us to argue against the existence of experiences that cannot be communicated (do you mean: 'not perfectly communicated' or 'not even hinted at that they exist'? Communication is not binary), and with the sentences:

The reason I want to convince you to entertain this notion is that an awful lot of energy gets wasted by arguing against religious beliefs on logical grounds, pointing out contradictions in the Bible and whatnot. Such arguments tend to be ineffective, which can be very frustrating for those who advance them. The antidote for this frustration is to realize that spirituality is not about logic.

you attempt to ban a whole class of arguments that might well be relevant. Your post is a wonderful piece of rhetoric (although some of the analogies get stretched a bit thin), but it hardly communicates anything. Other than

people might profess to believe in God for reasons other than indoctrination or stupidity. Religious texts and rituals might be attempts to share real subjective experiences

there doesn't seem to be a single claim in the whole text. Do you truly think that most of spirituality is an attempt to communicate a feeling of belonging that one gets also when giving up after being bullied for a week? And that this feeling is both incommunicable and easily induced with some practice (you give meditation as an example)?

5lisper5yThat's a little bit of an oversimplified caricature, but yes, I do more or less believe that this is true. Moreover, I think there is evidence to support this position beyond just the intuitive argument I've presented here. The idea that religion evolved as a way of maintaining social cohesion is hardly original with me. I'm frankly a little bit surprised that I'm getting pushback on this; I had assumed this was common knowledge.
1TheMajor5yThe strong part of the claim is not "There exists a feeling of belonging, and religion is particularly good at inducing it" or even "Religion is among the best if not outright the very best method for maintaining social cohesion", which as you say are not claims that I think would recieve a lot of pushback (here, at least). The strong part is "Do you truly think that most of spirituality is an attempt to communicate a feeling of belonging" - i.e. when the stories found in the Bible were first told, were they claims of truth or mostly persuasion tricks? I would accept that most of the modern function of spirituality today is to provide cohesion, but at the same time spirituality also claims to have insight into some factual matters (history, for example) and moral dilemmas. I don't see how accepting that these insights were generated with the purpose/function of maintaining group cohesion is correlated at all with them being true. I think this is the core conflict of Spirituality vs Rationality, the title of the post; not that maintaining group cohesion is irrational, but that accepting answers to factual and sometimes moral questions through dogma instead of evidence cannot be reconciled with rationality. If there was a spirituality where all the participants acknowledged that the main purpose is group cohesion, all spoken and written text is to be interpreted as metaphors at best and, say, regular church-going makes everybody more happy all around, then I think most rationalists would be all for that. But this doesnt look at all like the spirituality found in the world around us.
-3lisper5yI have no idea. Things were so vastly different back then I can't possibly even mount an educated guess about that. What difference does it make how it started? Today, at least in the U.S., I think it's a defensibly hypothesis that what people call "spiritual experiences" are largely about community and shared subjective experience. Sure, but that's not the subject I'm addressing. The subject I'm addressing is the belief that many people in the rational community seem to hold (Dawkins being the most prominent example) that the only possible reason anyone could even profess to believe in God is because they are an idiot. Yes, that's mostly true (though I am personally acquainted with a number of people who profess to believe in God but who are otherwise seem perfectly rational). I'm not saying that the conclusions reached by religious people are correct. I'm simply advancing the hypothesis that religious people reach the conclusions that they do is in part that they have different subjective experiences than non-relgious people.
6gjm5yWhy do people feel free to write such rot about Richard Dawkins? In his book "The God Delusion" he says: "Great scientists who profess religion become harder to find through the twentieth century, but they are not particularly rare." Do you think that is consistent with thinking that the only possible reason for professing belief in God is idiocy?
2lisper5yWell, OK, Dawkins doesn't use the word "idiot." He says that anyone who believes in God is suffering from "a pernicious delusion" (The God Delusion, Chapter 2). I think most people would say that distinguishing between idiocy and pernicious delusions is splitting a pretty fine hair. But be that as it may, the point is: Dawkins has absolutely no sympathy [,318,n,n] for religious belief of any kind for any reason. Or at least he didn't in 2006. Maybe he's mellowed since then. (But I met him in 2012 in a social setting and he told me, apropos of nothing, "I despise religion.")
4gjm5yI think there's a big difference. "Because they are an idiot" is saying something wide-ranging about that person's nature: they're just Not Very Bright. If someone is an idiot, we can expect them to be generally intellectually incompetent. "suffering from a pernicious delusion" is saying something much narrower about one area of their life: they are wrong about this one thing. If someone has a pernicious delusion, we can expect them to make serious errors about things closely related to that delusion, but aside from that they might be wise and ingenious and quick-witted and so forth. Pointing out the difference between these is not hair-splitting. That may be true (though so far as I can see the thing you link to doesn't show that it is). But so what? You cited Dawkins as an example of someone who believes the proposition you were arguing against: "that the only possible reason anyone could even profess to believe in God is because they are an idiot". I don't think he believes this. I know I don't believe this. I really don't think there are many rationalists who believe it. Now, maybe what you're actually arguing against is something broader -- e.g., that we shouldn't say unpleasant things about religion, or that we shouldn't hold any negative opinion about religious people that goes beyond "they are probably wrong on such-and-such factual questions". But so far as I can see the arguments you've been making aren't of the right form to lead to such conclusions, even were they correct in every detail.
3SoerenE5yIt is possible to be extremely intelligent, and suffer from a delusion.
-1lisper5yOf course it's possible. That's not the point. The point is that "pernicious delusion" is pejorative in much the same way that "idiot" is (which is why I extrapolated it that way). Both imply some sort of mental deficiency or disorder . If someone believes in God, on this view, it can only be because their brains are broken. To be sure, some people do have broken brains, and some people believe in God as a result. The hypothesis that I'm advancing here is that some people may believe in God not because their brains are broken, but because they have had (real) subjective experiences that non-believers generally have not had.
4SoerenE5yI am tapping out of this thread.
1TheMajor5yCould you taboo 'are [...] about' in your "what people call "spiritual experiences" are largely about community and shared subjective experience."? Also your main point, that religious people reach their conclusions partly because they have experienced different things than non-religious people, is simply true. But why would you write a long metaphor-riddled piece about this, and give it the clickbait title "Is Spirituality Irrational?". And even with this formulation there is still some Motte-and-Bailey [] going on if you intend to reconcile spirituality and rationality - just because different experiences were a contributing factor to accepting spirituality does not strongly support that spirituality and rationality can go hand-in-hand. Most importantly your final claim doesn't seem to help in answering my 'core conflict' above.
1lisper5ySorry, that didn't parse. Because not everyone believes it to be true. And because metaphor can be an effective rhetorical device for some audiences. Because it was written in response to an article entitled "Religious and Rational?" I'm not sure what you're referring to as my "final claim." But my intent here is not to reconcile religion and rationality; that can't be done. My intent here is just to try to provide an alternative explanation of how people arrive at religious conclusions than the "they are all idiots" hypothesis, with the hope that this might lead to more constructive dialog.
0CCC5yTaboo Your Words [] should provide the necessary context to parse TheMajor's query. I think.
0lisper5yAh, I see. OK, well, let me begin by re-stating my original disclaimer that I actually have no idea what the answer to the question is, and that this is pure speculation on my part. But with that firmly in mind, here's my best shot at re-forumulation that speculation under this taboo. Let's recall the original question: I don't think this is an exhaustive enumeration of the possibilities. My guess (and I cannot emphasize that enough) is that they were (and remain) attempts to make sense of subjective experiences that many people actually do experience. In that sense they were more "claims of truth" than "persuasion tricks". However... There is some evidence (I don't have the references handy but I can probably find them if you really want to know) that the ancients view of truth and falsehood was very different from the modern conception. The ancients had at least three categories of "truth", what we moderns would roughly call "objective physical truth", "fiction or falsehood", and "myth." The ancients believed that a claim like, "And God said..." was of a very different nature than a claim like, "Achmed ate an apple yesterday." Part of the problem with modern thought -- and one of the reasons that it seems to lead to so many intractable arguments -- is that we insist on getting rid of the "myth" category and lumping all claims into two buckets: objectively true or objectively false. It is easy to see that this is problematic in other regimes, like artistic beauty. Most moderns readily recognize that it makes no sense to try to categorize a claim like, "Les Demoiselles D'Avignon is a beautiful painting" into "objectively true" or "objectively false." (Note, however, that David Deutsch actually disputes this!) The ancients would have considered an attempt to categorize "the law was given by the gods" as "objectively true" or "objectively false" to be equally futile.
1ChristianKl5yWhat has social cohesion to do with spirituality? Why do you consider those to be linked? You don't explain that at all in your post.
2lisper5yThat's true, sorry about that. I actually wrote this piece many months ago, and it's a topic on which I have written extensively elsewhere. I've made the social-cohesion argument elsewhere, and I just forgot that I hadn't made it here. But here is the argument in a nutshell: we are social creatures, and many (if not all) of our social interactions are fundamentally based on shared subjective experiences: sharing the same meal, watching the same sunset, understanding the same proof. The religious trappings that tend to surround spirituality -- the holy texts and the prayers and the rituals -- can be understood as attempts to create social interactions anchored by the kinds of euphoric experiences I describe in my piece, the kind of experience that is hard to render into words beyond something like "Feeling the presence of the holy spirit" or something like that. It's the difference between looking at the grooves (which is what rational people tend to do when the look at religion), and listening to the music (spiritual experience), and going to a concert and getting carried around in the mosh pit (going to church).
5ChristianKl5yIt seems that you refer with the term rational to new atheist or something in that direction but not necessarily with what this community means with the term.
2lisper5yThat's quite possible. If I used the term inappropriately, I apologize. So I'll re-phrase: "which is what a certain sub-set of non-religious people tend to do when they look at religion".

...let's start with a little thought experiment...

The two cases are non-analogous. Grooves in a phonograph record are not designed to be read by a human. Perhaps a better analogy would be reading sheet music, but most people are not trained to do that either. The reason people show such a strong preference in the latter case is that most people will get nothing at all from the record (or sheet music, for that matter).

just because some people can't see colors doesn't mean that colors aren't real. The same is true for spiritual experiences.

This is a truism. Moreover, it is often argued that colors, flavors, &c. are of the map, not of the territory. If this is the case, colors may not be "real", even if the experience of colors is. cannot render into words the subjective experience...

The attempt to losslessly transmit a complete subjective experience would be futile, although I've read some poets who took a good stab at it. Experience is one of the media that make up the map. Two people, given exactly the same stimulus, would have two different subjective experiences. It would certainly be easier to compare similar experiences with a similar reference fr... (read more)

4gjm5yI strongly agree, and in fact when I read the OP I nearly stopped when I saw this argument. (Because it's so transparently wrong that if someone finds it a good analogy, that's evidence that they aren't thinking clearly about this stuff.)
1Luke_A_Somers5yWhen I read it, it was so strongly non-analogous that I was entirely unsurprised to find that their being anti-analogical was precisely the point.
6gjm5yI think we may be referring to different analogies. There are two going on, and lisper is making a third analogy between them. * Between vinyl records and books. * Between vinyl records and spiritual experiences. The first pair, lisper intends to be importantly non-analogous, on the grounds that the difference in immediacy and intensity and so forth is so much greater for the records than the books. The second pair, he intends to be importantly analogous, the idea being that the difference between having spiritual experiences and merely hearing about them is as profound as that between hearing music and looking at the groove on a vinyl record. But a problem (at least as it seemed to both kithpendragon and me) is that the disanalogy between records and books isn't just a matter of greater immediacy and vividity; it's that most of us are literally unable to interpret the groove on a vinyl record even theoretically, and this is an important part of what's going on in the comparison between records and books. And this (so I think and I guess kithpendragon does too) is not the case for spiritual experiences; even people who have nothing resembling the experiences some profoundly religious people have can get a reasonable understanding of what sort of thing they're experiencing, even if it's a dry and theoretical understanding. Which, to my mind, means that the analogy between analogies doesn't work the way lisper intended it to.
0Riothamus5yA correct analogy between records and books would be the phonograph and the text of the book written in ASCII hexadecimal. Both are designed to be interpreted by a machine for presentation to humans.
0gjm5yNot a bad analogy, but for me at least interpreting hexadecimal ASCII is much, much easier than interpreting images of vinyl records. [EDITED to add:] More explicitly, I can do the former, though it would be boring and greatly reduce my enjoyment of reading, but I'm not at all sure that I can do the latter at all without electronic assistance.
0Riothamus5yI would also have an easier time with ASCII, but that's because I (and presumably you also) have been trained in how to produce instructions for machines. This is a negligible chunk of humanity, so I thought it was equally discountable. I suppose the spiritual analogy would be an ordained priest praying on behalf of another person!
4gjm5yI reckon I could teach anyone of average or better intelligence to read books in hexadecimal ASCII codes in a day. I suspect a substantial majority of highly intelligent and musically inclined people could not learn to "read" pictures of vinyl records in a day, no matter how well taught.
3lisper5yYes, that is the whole point. The experience of God may be real even if God isn't. Also, the reason I didn't choose sheet music as my analogy is that the information content of sheet music is different from the actual music. To get from sheet music to music you have to add information (in the information-theoretical sense) like the waveforms of the individual instruments. That is not the case with the grooves on a record. They contain all of the same information as the audio waveform, but simply rendered in space rather than in time.
5kithpendragon5yThe difference here is that there is something in the environment that causes the experience of color to appear consistently in many, many human minds. We can measure the waves that could enter the eye and trigger the "color" experience. The same cannot be said of God. "Spiritual" seems likely to be the best word to name the experience you have described. Religion need not be involved at any level. More simply, I'm sure these experiences exist. But there is good reason not to name the experience God. That word, and the set of words it often stands for, is far too laden with other meanings and contexts to be a helpful label in this context. The information on sheet music is compressed, but an individual trained to read it can, with practice, decompress all of it into an experience of the composition. Ask any orchestra conductor of sufficient experience what that is like. Some conductors even prefer to experience the music that way; they find that the orchestra can get in the way of experiencing what the composer intended. That is, in fact, the job of a conductor. The phonograph record, on the other hand, is a representation of a single performance of a composition, interpreted by the conductor and the orchestra. And the point stands that a phonograph record cannot be read by (nearly all) humans. It is not analogous to the text of a book, it is analogous to the medium (tape, CD, MP3, &c.) on which the audiobook is recorded. For that matter, the audiobook holds the same "additional information" as the recorded symphony: that added by the performer(s) translating the text/music into sound.
3lisper5yThat's not necessarily true. It's possible that we could find the mechanism in the brain which is responsible for spiritual experiences. But that's kind of missing the point. Most human interactions don't drill down this deep. Even rational people have conversation that go, "Did you see that cool fnorble?" "Yeah, wasn't that awesome?" without citing the peer-reviewed academic literature that establishes the objective existence and material properties of fnorbles. Religious people do the same: they say, "Did you feel the presence of the holy spirit?" "Yeah, I did, wasn't that awesome?" Sure, but such people are rare. You can probably also train yourself to have spiritual experiences. Fine, how about this then: display the audio waveform on an oscilloscope. The point is that having music come into your years is a fundamentally different subjective experience than having it come in to your eyes even if the information content is the same in both cases.
3Gleb_Tsipursky5yI think the crux here is to avoid arguing against people's experiences when trying to raise the sanity waterline []. If one argues against their deep experiences, there's a big danger of the backfire effect []. If one acknowledges the experience of God as something real, but delineates that from proof of an actual God existing, this may go further with religious people.

Your observation is valid, but spiritual experiences of that sort are extremely rare. I was raised in an evangelical church, in a very serious, I might say fanatical, Christian family, and went to church, Bible study, and other church events regularly for many years. Spiritual experiences were a common topic of discussion. But no one in my family ever had one, nor any of my friends. They were things visiting missionaries from Africa talked about. So it doesn't explain the great bulk of religion.

2Lumifer5yI don't know about that. I have a feeling that these spiritual experiences cluster and that in certain times and social contexts they are pretty common, and in other times and contexts -- not so much. I think this indicates that there is a full spectrum of these experiences -- from mild unease at something being vaguely there to being fully and completely overwhelmed by God's presence. The extremes follow their own paths (one to being ignored and the other to becoming a full-fledged mystic), but the middle depends a lot of social expectations, priming, feedback loops, etc. The same experience could be described as presence of God and as "that was weird, my mind must be getting loopy".
0lisper5yWhat can I say? I've met a lot of believers who claim that God talks to them on a regular basis. They seem sincere, but maybe they're all just really good liars (or maybe I'm really gullible).

Even if I am not setting out trying to disparage a spiritual person's spiritual experiences—even if I am trying to be as charitable to them as possible—it is difficult to see how I could have a conversation with them about information (their own subjective spiritual experiences) that is not publicly accessible to me. It boils down to them telling me about their private experience and me replying, "Cool story bro." Once again, not because I WANT to sound flippant or dismissive...but what else can I say about it? I'm glad they had their experien... (read more)

4spriteless5yThe only meditation I can do is body-scan meditation. It is not particularly spiritual, just body awareness. If you are looking for the calming benefits of meditation, you might check it out. I feel this way. I usually assume it's someone else's typical mind fallacy keeping them from explaining, or else certain word sounds are connected to different meanings, or else I am neurodivergent such that the explainer is used to people who don't need to have it explained better, or something to do with signalling that went over my head.
2lisper5yYeah, the faith thing has always seemed kinda weird to me too. But you have to understand that this is just one of many mechanisms by which spiritual experiences can be induced. It works for some people, not for others. There's a lot of individual variation in people's responses to pharmaceuticals too.

This feels a lot like a Bait and Switch to me. You haven't defined "Spirituality" well enough that I can tell what you're actually claiming, and I suspect as soon as I agree to any of your points you'll shout "a-ha!" and accuse me of some inconsistency.

I have heard nobody argue against enjoying music - I recommend it heartily. I do argue against making decisions based on incredibly wrong probability assignments (say, that there is a human-like judgement and experiences after death).

You seem to be saying that these two recommendations on my part are contradictory. I don't see it.

9lisper5yI'm sorry this feels like a bait-and-switch. Let me try to state my claim as clearly as I can: some people believe in God because they have had first-hand subjective experiences for which the best explanation that they can come up with is that they were caused by God (for some value of "God'). The nature of these experiences cannot be fully rendered into words, but it is of a similar character to that which causes even rational people to characterize the subjective experience of listening to music as somehow fundamentally different from looking at the grooves in a record despite the fact that the information entering your brain is the same in both cases.
7CCC5yThis seems a fairly empty claim. I believe in the existence of trees because I have had first-hand experiences (including: walking into a tree) for which the best explanation that I can come up with is that they were caused by the presence of trees. I don't see how this claim helps your argument. A large part of this may be that I'm having some trouble seeing exactly what your argument is - it looks like you are claiming that you felt a sense of euphoria while having a religious experience once, and therefore have concluded that all religious experiences consist of nothing more than a sense of euphoria? How is this not a simple case of the typical mind fallacy, that is to say, the assumption that everyone else thinks in exactly the same way that you do?
4lisper5yThe point I am trying to make is that some people believe in God for the exact same reason that you believe in trees: they have had first-hand subjective experiences for which the best explanation that they can come up with is that they were caused by God. No, I'm advancing the hypothesis that such experiences are (at least part of) the foundation of religious belief, just as the first-hand experience of walking into a tree is (at least part of) the foundation of your belief in trees. I strongly suspect, however, that most of your belief in trees comes not from walking into them, but from seeing them, with walking into them providing only additional confirmation for your prior belief. You don't give this a lot of thought because the vast majority of your fellow creatures also see trees, and so your interactions with them become a network of self-reinforcing confirmations that trees do in point of fact exist. But imagine a different world, where everyone is blind except you, and the only tree is on the other side of a wide, impassable canyon. You can see the tree, but no one else can. Everyone thinks you're insane because you believe in trees, indeed because you believe that the canyon has "another side" (what an absurd notion!) How would you go about trying to convince your blind peers that you can in fact see the trees? Well, you might start by trying to convince them that you can see . This you can readily demonstrate, because you can do things that your blind peers can't (I'll leave it up to you to devise an appropriate experiment). But you still might have a hard time convincing them about trees. "Yeah, sure, he can do all kinds of cool tricks because of this supposed "gift of sight" that he has. But, c'mon, trees? Really?" So now go back to 5000 BC and you've got people who think they hear the Voice of God. Some of them say, "God told me there is going to be a drought." And by golly, the next year there is a drought. Can you see how some people might start
3ChristianKl5yA while ago I talked to a person studying theology at university to become a minister. I asked him about spiritual experience. He answered that he doesn't have any strong spiritual experiences and most of his classmates also haven't. A few have and he considered them a bit strange because they were than also serious about things like no-sex-before-marriage. He was religious because he was brought up with the rituals of religion and not based on special spiritual experiences. The conversation took place in Berlin with is culturally different than the US, but he still considered himself to be really religious. On the other hand I do have experience surrounding what most people would call a near-death experience. I do meditate together with nonreligious people who teach not to take visions during meditation too seriously. It's quite interesting that the spiritual experience of you was at a Christian summer camp and not in a church on Sunday. The Christian summer camp is not a standard institution of Christianity. The church on Sunday's is. To me the church on Sunday is not a system that looks like it's designed to produce spiritual experience. That's how people can work on becoming Christian ministers without having had spiritual experience. When it comes to the spiritual experience of lay people I Christian's burned women as witches for going in that direction. I don't think focusing on creating spiritual experience is a traditional focus of Christianity.
3lisper5yIt is in the American South. It is very much the focus of charismatic Christian sects [].
2TheAltar5yThere are wide variations between the different Christian denominations/groups in terms of spiritual experiences. This includes their occurrence at all and how commonly they occur. Roman Catholics, more vanilla flavored groups (Baptists&Lutherans?), and the charismatic and pentecostal groups have massive variations on this that I've witnessed first hand. I'm confident that there are Christian groups who have zero or next to zero spiritual experiences ever while there are also groups like the charismatic church within 5 km of my house where everyone in the entire church exhibits glossolalia and believes they are being gifted special fruits/powers via direct spirit possession by the holy spirit/ghost every single Sunday. That church has at least 300 members and is not an uncommon denomination in my area either. (And yes, watching a massive room full of >300 people stand around convulsing and making weird nonsense noises while they believe they're being taken over by a non-human entity is about as disturbing as it sounds.) The fact that people have stronger spiritual experiences at summer camps doesn't surprise me based on what I've seen. The stuff that happened at a related church's summer camp that I witnessed was even stranger and more discomforting that what I wrote above.
-3Old_Gold5yThis person sounds like an atheist who wants to cosplay as religious and considers the people who are actually religious to be "strange".
4ChristianKl5yThat's religion in Germany for you.
1polymathwannabe5yNot that it should matter in a debate, but I find a metaphor that characterizes rejection of the spiritual as a form of blindness very offensive.
5lisper5yThat surprises me. Why? Please note that "spiritual" != "supernatural". I'm using "spiritual" here to describe a particular kind of subjective experience that some people have and others don't. So there's no such thing as "rejection of the spiritual" -- that's a category error [].
2polymathwannabe5yThe blindness metaphor presents spiritual sensitivity as an ability that rationalists lack. Your definition of "spiritual" is still not fully detailed here, but does it contradict the proposition "spiritual" ∈ "supernatural"?
2lisper5yThat is exactly the hypothesis I'm advancing. I'm sorry if you find it offensive. That's because spirituality is a subjective sensation, a quale []. Those are notoriously difficult to define with precision. Spiritual experience is no more supernatural that any other subjective experience. But it can feel that way because of the manner in which it is induced.
7gjm5yWhy do you characterize having spiritual experiences as an ability? They happen to some people and not to others. For some such things (seizures, heart attacks, lapses of memory, panic attacks) we generally prefer not to have them happen to us, and wouldn't call them "abilities". For some (moments of insight, orgasms, restful nights' sleep) we generally regard them as good things, and might call them "abilities". Why should spiritual experiences -- in particular, spiritual experiences of a kind that very strongly predispose the people who have them to draw incorrect conclusions about the world -- be put in the latter category rather than the former? One possible answer is that spiritual experiences are, well, nice. (Of course "nice" has exactly the wrong sorts of connotation here. Too bad.) But, e.g., falling wildly in love is nice too, but if you find that it happens every time you meet a new person-of-the-relevant-sex then any impartial observer would consider it more a liability than an ability. So that answer seems like it's applying a wrong criterion. Another possible answer is that spiritual experiences really are what many who have them say they are: actual perceptions of a transcendent reality. You feel like you're in the presence of God? That's because you actually are. I agree (of course) that if that's so then having (the right sorts of) spiritual experience is an ability, and not having them is a disability. But you've already said you're not yourself a believer, and if there is in fact no god then spiritual experiences that give the very strong impression of being encounters with a god are actively misleading. So that answer doesn't seem to work. The Christian tradition is very fond of a metaphor very much like the one you're using here: "I once was lost but now am found, / Was blind, but now I see", etc. But what Christians generally mean by it is not that the "blind" don't have spiritual experiences, but that the "blind" don't perceive the presenc
-1lisper5yI think you're reading too much positive connotation into the word "ability". Some people can roll their tongues, other's can't. It's not unreasonable to recast that as: some people have the ability to roll their tongues, others don't. There's actually some evidence that the ability to have spiritual experience is adaptive, and that it can be learned and developed by conscious effort, so it might even be fair to characterize it is a skill. But again, don't read too much endorsement into that. The ability to hang a spoon off your nose is a skill too.
1gjm5yYup, that's an ability. It's a thing you can do when you want to do it and avoid when you don't, and things with those characteristics we generally classify as abilities. Having "spiritual experiences" is not, for most people who have them, an ability in that sense -- and if it were, I think they should (and perhaps even would) for that very reason doubt that God (the gods, the life-force permeating all things, the ancestral spirits, whatever) had much to do with it. I repeat: why classify "having spiritual experiences" as an ability rather than, say, a susceptibility? Why is it more like having ideas than like having colds? Why is it more like having orgasms than like having sneezes? If true, that would be (1) interesting and (2) a reason for seeing it as an ability. But let's be a bit more careful. Having spiritual experiences on demand would be an ability (and, in the same way, if you had the rather peculiar superpower of catching a cold any time you wanted, that would be an ability although not a very useful one). But I don't see that that makes the term "ability" appropriate for people who have them involuntarily. I'm pushing this point because it seems to me that a lot of the work in your argument is actually being done by your choice of the word "ability" and your use of analogies (blindness...) that are only appropriate when talking about the absence of an ability, but it doesn't seem to me that you've justified those choices. Maybe "ability" is a good term; maybe actually something with a different spin on it like "liability" or "susceptibility" would be better; maybe we need something more neutral. But when the choice of terminology and analogies matters, let's have some actual support for it.
2lisper5yYes, I understand. It's a perfectly reasonable thing to push back on. I certainly agree with that, and so this reduces the issue to an empirical question: are spiritual experiences something that people can (mostly) control? I think they are. I don't see a lot of evidence of people having spiritual experiences outside the context of certain deliberate practices and rituals like attending church, reciting prayers, singing, laying on of hands, sweat lodge ceremonies... But it's an "ability" that is more akin to "the ability to enjoy sex" or "the ability to appreciate modern art" than it is "the ability to fly an airplane" or "the ability to run a four-minute mile." I think that people who believe in God by and large don't really think it through to that level of detail. Those that do tend to come to the conclusion you'd expect them to []. And, BTW, this is why people don't think it through. Losing the ability to commune with God can be very painful for some people. It's rather like if you think too hard about the biological realities of sex you can lose the ability (sic!) to enjoy it.
3gjm5yI don't see a lot of evidence of people getting venereal diseases outside the context of having sex, or getting hangovers outside the context of drinking a lot. Are those "abilities"? I don't think so. If you agree, what's the relevant difference?
-1lisper5ySure, why not? Someone who can drink heavily without getting a hangover can be said to have "the ability to hold their liquor." It's a little harder to find a commonly used phrase to refer to someone who can have unprotected sex without contracting venereal diseases. This would probably be referred to as an "immunity" rather than an "ability." If you want to speak of people having "immunity" from spiritual experiences I certainly won't argue with you.
3gjm5ySorry, I wasn't clear and you ended up interpreting my question as almost the exact opposite of what I intended, so let me try to clarify. You argue (if I understand right) as follows. Spiritual experiences generally occur only in certain contexts that people can voluntarily put themselves in. To that extent, they are voluntary. So, those who have spiritual experiences have some ability to choose whether to have them or not. So, having spiritual experiences is an "ability". But exactly parallel things are true of some things we don't generally classify that way, like getting venereal diseases or having hangovers. Both of those things occur only in particular contexts that people can voluntarily put themselves in. (Having sex; drinking a lot of alcohol.) I guess you would not generally speak of "the ability to contract gonorrhea" or "the ability to get a raging hangover", any more than I would. So why does the fact that spiritual experiences generally occur in special contexts give good reason to speak of "the ability to have spiritual experiences"?
3lisper5yAh. Well, one difference is that spiritual experiences feel good, and so many people seek them out. No one seeks to have a hangover or contract gonorrhea.
3gjm5yI am still not convinced, for reasons I'll give in a moment, but actually I think this would be a good time to exercise some rationalist skills. We have a difficulty over definitions, so let's taboo [] the term "ability" and perhaps take some cues from Yvain's excellent post about "disease" []. So, can you state your thesis without using the word "ability" or anything equivalent? Can you make explicit what specific features of "spiritual experiences" are relevant and how they lead to the conclusions you want to draw? (By "your thesis", I mean what you described before as "exactly the hypothesis I'm advancing" [].) I should fulfil my promise to explain why the combination of "only in some situations that we can seek out" and "feels good" isn't enough to justify calling something an "ability", at least as I use the word. Let me quote from Jonathan Franzen's book The Corrections. "Him" here is an elderly man, Al, whose mental function is beginning to go downhill. Al has had a pleasant experience (thinking he saw children playing) which will occur only in certain circumstances that perhaps he could seek out (there being sunflowers around to confuse with children). Would you want to talk about the ability to confuse sunflowers with children? I wouldn't.
3lisper5yWell, I'm actually defending two theses here, one of which is that "ability" is an appropriate term to use, but I'm happy to just agree to disagree about that. Here's a restatement of my other (hypo)thesis, making my best effort to avoid loaded terms: There exists a kind of subjective experience that is analogous to but distinct from other subjective experiences like seeing a sunset, tasting food, hearing music, etc. It is a real subjective experience, not a delusion nor an indication of any kind of mental pathology (though it can be associated with some pathologies, particularly in its more extreme forms). It is induced not by light nor chemicals nor sound, but rather by engaging in certain behaviors (like prayer) and approaching those behaviors with a certain mindset. The mindset is difficult to describe without using loaded words (I want to call it "faith") so I'll just call it the opposite of (or an absence of) skepticism (I presume that's not a loaded term?) Some people do not have firsthand experience of this subjective sensation, either because they have not engaged in the behaviors that produce it, or because they are unable or unwilling to enter the mindset that produces it, or because their brains are wired in such a way that they are simply do not (I originally wrote "are unable to" here) experience it even with the right behavior and mindset. It is a situation completely analogous to the well-known phenomenon that some people cannot distinguish the colors red and green, and therefore cannot have the same subjective experience of seeing a tree and a sunset as someone who can ("is able to") distinguish red and green. It is this difference in firsthand subjective experience that accounts at least in part for the seemingly intractable differences among people when it comes to questions about the existence of deities. Some people believe in deities because they have had real subjective experiences that they believe in good faith (no pun intended) can best
4gjm5yI think the only part of that paragraph that is in any way controversial is the bit where you say the experience in question is "not a delusion nor an indication of any kind of mental pathology" -- but I think most even of the most fire-breathing atheists wouldn't claim that religious experience as such is a delusion (I think that would be a category error) or pathological. So: so far so good, but not much of substance yet. (But, on that just-infinitesimally-controversial point -- I remark that the word "real" that you use is at least a little bit loaded, and it's not really clear to me what it means. I mean, what's the alternative? They have this experience but it's a fake experience? What would that even mean? The obvious thing for it to mean is that the experience doesn't have the meaning they think it has; that although it seems to them that what they've experienced is being touched by an angel or spoken to by God or whatever, the real cause of their experience is something very different. But that's the position you yourself have taken, so you surely can't mean "real" in opposition to anything like that.) Again, true and uncontroversial. Bzzzzt! I think it's very interesting that even when deliberately trying to state your thesis without loaded terms, you apparently just can't help equating not having religious experiences with a deficiency. I suggest that unless religious experiences are actual perceptions of non-natural realities -- a position that AIUI you explicitly reject -- the two things are demonstrably not "completely analogous". Why? Because probably the single most salient thing about that inability-to-distinguish, the thing that explains why it's sometimes called "colour blindness", is that it involves an actual perceptual deficit. In "colour-blind" individuals, an extremely important channel by which information about the external world flows into their brain has substantially less sensitivity, substantially less bandwidth, than in individuals w
2lisper5yOh, come on. I thought we were being civil here. That's right, because I think it is a kind of deficiency, though I would not have used that word if you had not introduced it into the conversation. There's a lot of controversy within the deaf community about whether being deaf is a deficiency or just another way of being, kind of like being gay. Personally, I think being deaf is a deficiency, but there's a significant faction of the deaf community that would take offense at that. Your pushback on this has a similar feel to it. Fair enough. Let me choose a different analogy then: some people have a subjective experience called "empathy" which manifests as a visceral revulsion at, for example, deliberately inflicting pain on another person even in situations where inflicting such pain might provide a net benefit to the inflicter. Some people don't experience empathy. This is widely considered pathological []. Note that this has nothing to do with any objective judgement about the state of the world. Sociopaths and psychopaths know that other people experience pain, they just don't care. The truth is important to me, yes. But the word "abnormal" is really heavily loaded, so I wouldn't use it, just like I wouldn't use "deficiency" without being prompted. Most people are straight, so technically being straight is normal and so one could argue that not being straight is "abnormal". But by that standard, having red hair is abnormal. That is not what most people mean when they say "abnormal." You seem to want to read a value judgement into my choice of words which I do not intend. So let me try this: If you're white you have a deficiency in skin pigmentation, and this deficiency leads to an inability to tolerate a lot of sun exposure without injury. Despite using the words "deficiency" and "inability" this is intended to be a mere statement of fact, not a value judgement. That is the sense in
6gjm5yI was aiming for "funny" rather than "rude"; I'm sorry if I missed. (But personally I think your continued insistence on applying negative-valence terminology to Those Who Do Not Have Spiritual Experiences is much ruder than anything I've said in this discussion.) Deafness, like colour-blindness, involves an objectively measurable loss of sensory function. Whether that justifies using terms like "disability", or whether e.g. membership in the Deaf community is a sufficiently important counterbalancing good to make such terms inappropriate, is perhaps debatable; but again it seems to me that you are drawing an analogy where the central feature of the thing on one side of the analogy is not present on the other. My pushback consists mostly of pointing that out. It therefore doesn't seem very similar to me. I think what's usually "officially" reckoned pathological, if you look in the DSM or whatever, is not lack of empathy as such but psychopathy, a condition identified not merely by lack of empathy but by other underlying characteristics and outward effects including lack of concern for the welfare of others. Perhaps lack of empathy itself should be reckoned pathological, though, so let's proceed with that stipulation. So let's consider why not having empathy is (or might be, or should be) considered pathological, when (e.g.) not having much melanin in your skin, or not having an appendix, is not. It seems to me that there are two reasons. First: not having empathy not infrequently leads to severe adverse consequences for other people: psychopaths are greatly overrepresented in the criminal population, for instance. Severe adverse consequences are an important part of what leads things to be reckoned pathologies. Second: not having empathy is rare. That's not a necessary condition for calling something a pathology, but it helps; in doubtful cases, things present in a large fraction of the population are more likely to be reckoned just "normal variation" rather tha
0lisper5yOK, I'm sorry if I was being humor-impaired. You'll have to take this up with someone in the deaf community because I'm on your side of this particular issue. Nonetheless, the fact is that there exist deaf people who vehemently disagree with both of us on this. You're getting too far into the weeds here. I brought up empathy not because it's exactly the same as spiritual experience sensitivity (I'm going to start abbreviating that as SES) but because it's a purely internal subjective experience and not relatable to anything that is objectively measurable outside the individual brain that is experiencing it. Of course many of the salient details are different, that's why I didn't choose it as my primary example. I'm not sure whether you wrote that as a statement of your position or a re-statement of what you think my position is, but either way I don't agree with this statement. In fact, I rather belabor the point that I am a skeptic who has spiritual experiences, so I myself am a counterexample. I also think that a fair number of religious people don't have spiritual experiences. Mother Theresa, for example, probably never had one []. No, that really is an unjustified extrapolation on your part. Being heterosexual is normal. It does not follow that being homosexual is abnormal. Again, no. Some people are lactose intolerant. They lack the ability to produce the enzyme that digests lactose. This is actually the "normal" state of affairs; the ability to digest lactose arose very late in human evolutionary history. But the ability to digest dairy products is not "abnormal." You really are reading more into these words than I intend or that is justified by common patterns of usage. Because English doesn't have enough value-neutral words. How would you describe lactose intolerance without using words that make implicit value judgements? The very name "lactose intolerance" has a value judgement bu
3gjm5yActually, not quite either; it's intended as a restatement not of your explicitly taken position (which I know it is contrary to) but of what seems to me to be implicit in how you write about these things. You say (and I agree) that some skeptics have "spiritual experiences" and some religious people don't; but I think no one reading the rest of what you write would get that impression. I am not saying "lisper says X is normal; therefore lisper says not-X is abnormal". Not at all. I am pointing at an instance where you wrote something more specific. I quoted it before; let me quote it again. "it might be an indication of a normal part of the wiring of the human brain that is missing from their brains". (Emphasis yours.) What would count as "abnormal", if having a normal part of the wiring of the human brain missing from your brain doesn't? Again it seems that you're taking me to argue that if you think something is normal then you have to think its opposite is abnormal. I agree that you needn't do any such thing, and that is not the argument I was making. (See above.) "Some people get sick when they consume dairy products" would do pretty well. If more detail is required: "Children's bodies produce an enzyme called lactase that breaks down one of the constituents in milk. Many adults' bodies don't, and if those people drink milk or eat things made from milk they feel ill afterwards. Some adults' bodies do, especially in Western Europe and places colonized by Western Europeans. Those people can digest milk products without feeling bad." Or, if we need a brief technical-sounding term: "lactase nonpersistence". You know, I was hoping you might be specific. (I see that you give one specific example below, on which I will comment in a moment; it doesn't seem to me that it actually supports what you're saying.) I hope you won't be offended by my saying this, but given your apparent inability in this discussion to state your thesis without using terms that (so it se
3lisper5yFirst, I want to thank you for continuing to engage on this. Your feedback is very much appreciated. But we may need to agree to disagree on this. Some people derive a net benefit from believing in deities, notwithstanding that their beliefs are objectively false. How's that? If you want to formulate a question to direct to Dawkins that is phrased in a way that you would accept his answer as definitive, I will forward it to him, thought it's possible that his recent health issues might prevent him from replying in a timely manner. In my conversations with him he more than once disagreed categorically with statements that were essentially equivalent (though not word-for-word identical) with the formulation I just gave. At least we can agree on that! :-)
2gjm5yIndeed :-). Aha, a much more objectively stated thesis. It seems quite different from the one we started out discussing, though. This one I agree is neither obviously true nor obviously false. Since it still has the value-dependent word "benefit" in, disagreement about it might stem mostly from differences in values -- e.g., how to trade off being happier against having more accurate beliefs. (FWIW I think I would agree with the statement, but I suspect my estimate of what fraction of religious people really are better off on net because of their beliefs would be lower than yours.) Yeah, I think he has other more important things on his plate than clearing up a side-issue in our discussion.
2lisper5yIt is different, and I argued with myself over whether to include the explanation of how to get from A to B, but decided not to because the waters were muddy enough already. It's one of these things that I thought would be obvious, but obviously (!) my intuitions about what is obvious are failing me in this case. In any case, if you want to pursue this, I'm happy to elaborate. (Maybe I should write a followup post?) But this thread is already pretty long, maybe we should call it a day. Your call.
0gjm5yI have no trouble seeing a connection. If you think there's more -- an actual implication -- then I may be missing something. (Or we may merely disagree, which I think is more likely.) Feel free to elaborate or not as you please. I have no objection to calling it a day.
1polymathwannabe5yIf I understand you correctly, you're saying that people who strive to discipline their thinking process to constantly improve themselves, become sharper, make fewer mistakes, notice and correct their own biases, revise their opinions, and mercilessly seek their own weak points somehow lack awareness of an entire and tremendously important field of human experience? Rationalists are the last group of people I'd expect to miss something so crucial, if it were real.
3lisper5yYes, that's pretty much correct, except for one very important thing. You didn't actually say it, but there's a subtle implication in the way you framed my position that the causality runs in a particular direction, i.e. rationalists strive to discipline their thinking etc. and AS A RESULT lack awareness of an entire field of human experience. That is wrong. In fact, it's exactly backwards. (And I can now understand why you might have found it offensive.) The causality runs in the opposite direction: some people lack (first-hand) awareness of this important field of human experience, and because they lack this awareness they tend to become rationalists. So this "lack of first-hand awareness" is not necessarily a deficit. Here's an analogy: some people feel addictive cravings more than others. Someone who doesn't experience addictive cravings might have a hard time empathizing with someone who does because they can't imagine what it's like to have an addictive craving, never having had one of their own. So they might imagine that kicking an addiction is a simple matter of "exercising more self control" or some such thing, and have a hard time understanding why an addict would have such a hard time doing that. In an exactly analogous manner, someone who is not sensitive to spiritual experience might have a hard time understanding or empathizing with someone who does. It does not follow that not feeling addictive cravings is a bad thing. That depends a great deal on who you consider "rationalists." I've met a lot of self-identified rationalists but who are not even willing to consider the idea that spiritual experience varies across the human population as a hypothesis worthy of consideration. Heck, this article got so many downvotes early on that it almost cost me my posting privileges here on LW! Harshing on religious people seems to play a very important role in the social cohesion of many groups of people who self-identify as rationalists, and so it's not too s
4CCC5yThere is a third option; the third option is that there is correlation but not causation, in either direction. That the rationalist community started out top-heavy enough with atheists that atheism has become something of an in-group bias; strongly and vocally religious people tend to be shunned to some degree, not enough to force all out, but enough to maintain the atheistic dominance in most groups that call themselves rationalist.
5lisper5yThat is indeed a third possibility, but I think it can be safely ruled out. If there were a shred of actual evidence that spiritual experience was anything other than a neurophysiological phenomenon then I'm pretty sure the rational community would welcome religious people with open arms. The problem is, there is no such evidence, so there's a limit to how welcoming rationalists can be to someone who insists that God is an actual deity.
0CCC5yThere have been a few shreds, here and there []. Few, far between, and next to impossible to repeat.
4lisper5yThat's one of the many things that theists seem to have a hard time explaining: why is God so fleepin' cagey?
0CCC5yLet's consider briefly the opposite case. Let's assume that there's some miracle that can be called up on demand. It's simple, straightforward, and experimentally verifiable. In fact, drawing inspiration from the Miracle of Lanciano, let's say that bread and wine turn to flesh and blood every time the priest consecrates it. Every time. It always has the same DNA, which matches what one might expect of a Nazerene aroundabout 10A.D. Repeatedly. Assume that this has always been the case, as long as anyone can tell, ever since the early years A.D. (and, as far as anyone knows, nobody tried it before then). What happens? Well, presumably, a group of scientists investigate the phenomenon. They take measurements. They show how momentum and energy are conserved in the process. They check very thoroughly for any form of trickery, and find none. Eventually, one of them comes up with some long, complicated, barely plausible theory involving spontaneous chemical reactions in organic substances, suggests that this is the same process by which the bread you eat turns into part of you, and concludes that bread is an excellent food for growing children as it is easily converted to human muscles. In short, because it is a repeatable miracle, someone tries to fit it into the realm of things that are explainable without postulating the existence of God. If he is successful, then it looks like God is being cagey, and if he is not, then it looks like we are merely awaiting someone able to figure out a successful explanation (and God is being cagey).
4gjm5yI think your prediction is wrong. I think that if that happened, the scientific-and-skeptical community would go through something like the following steps: First, everyone would strongly suspect fraud of some kind. So there'd be a lot of attempts to check this -- from scientists and from Randi-type debunkers. Ex hypothesi these would not in fact detect fraud. At this point we would have a very well verified phenomenon that's fabulously difficult to fit into the standard naturalist/reductionist framework -- the only way we know of for whether someone has been validly ordained as a priest to influence what happens is via some kind of mind that's able to work with concepts like "priest", "ordained", and "valid". So somewhere around here I would expect the great majority of scientific skeptical types to conclude that something is paying attention to human religious rituals. Might be God, might be aliens with eccentric interests, might be some sort of superpowered AI whose existence we never noticed, etc., etc., etc., but it seems like it has to be something with a mind and with abilities that go way beyond ours. It would be worth checking a few more-reductionist things. For instance: just what changes to the process of priest-making suffice to make transubstantiation not work? (In many traditions, and in particular in those traditions that believe in transubstantiation in our world, priests have to be ordained by bishops, and bishops have to be ordained by other bishops, and the process involves a ceremonial laying on of hands. Is it possible that there's some thing that gets transferred when that happens? That would be interesting, and might make some of the more-natural options look a bit more plausible. On the other hand, does success depend essentially on intent everywhere down the line? That seems to require non-human minds watching.) If someone comes up with an actually-working theory about chemical reactions, that would be very interesting indeed -- but it
4lisper5yI couldn't have said it better myself. I'll just add that you don't have to get anywhere near this level of improbability (converting wine to blood and bread to human flesh requires nuclear transmutation, not just chemistry) to get convincing evidence of the existence of a deity. It would be enough to show that people who prayed to a particular deity could produce any measurable effect that could not be accounted for by a placebo effect with statistically higher probability of success than those who prayed to some other deity. It can be something as prosaic as asking God to speak to two believers and tell them something -- anything -- but have it be the same thing in both cases. The two believers write down what God tells them without communicating with each other, and then you check to see if they match. If people who prayed to Jesus matched more often than people who prayed to Allah under otherwise identical circumstances, that would really get my attention. When I suggest things like this to believers, the response is invariably a citation of Matthew 4:7 or some variation on that theme. (BTW, Jesus actually got this wrong. It was not in fact written that thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God. In fact, the Old Testament specifically calls on people to apply the scientific method to prophetic claims in Deuteronomy 18:21-22.)
2gjm5yI think you are making an elementary error: from "the Bible says not-X", inferring "the Bible doesn't say X". Deuteronomy 6:16 says "You shall not put YHWH your god to the test as you did at Massah". That's a reference to the events described in Exodus 17:7: "[Moses] named the place Massah and Meribah, because the children of Israel quarrelled and tested YHWH, saying 'Is YHWH among us or not?'." That's the bit where they get all grumpy at Moses because they have nothing to drink, and he strikes a rock with his staff and produces water. So it's all a bit flaky, but I don't think Jesus is wrong here. The Israelites get grumpy and accuse Moses of bringing them all this way out into the desert to let them die of thirst; Moses performs a miracle to give them some water and reassure them; God, as purportedly quoted by the author of Deuteronomy, interprets this as putting God to the test (this, if anything, is the dubious bit; the story in Exodus sounds as if their problem was thirst more than it was doubt) and tells them not to do it again; Jesus appeals to this when challenged to demonstrate that he, like Moses, has God on his side. (Digression: It seems to me that his response here would have been better as a response to the previous temptation -- to make rocks into food -- which is awfully reminiscent of what the Israelites had had Moses do. I wonder, and this is pure baseless speculation, whether at one point there were two temptation narratives going around, both involving the stones-into-food challenge, with Jesus giving the "man does not live by bread alone" answer in one version and the "do not put God to the test" answer in the other -- and then Mark or Q or whoever wanted to include both stories but needed a second temptation, and therefore made one up. This would also explain why the second temptation is such a silly one.)
2lisper5yHeh, you're right. I missed this because in the KJV Deu6:16 is translated as "shall not" rather than "shalt not" so my text search didn't find it. I stand corrected. Sorry, Jesus.
0CCC5yThey doubted God's ability to provide them with water. Now I'm imagining it a bit like a long journey in a car, with Israel the nation being like a very whiny child: "Are we there yet?" "We'll get there when we get there." ... "Are we THERE yet?" "No." ... "Are we there yet?" "No, we didn't get there in the last ten seconds." ... "I'm thirsty." "Here, have some water, and if you can't sit quietly for a few minutes, I'll have you wandering the desert for forty years, okay?"
0CCC5yOkay, I haven't looked into this in any detail, but I must say this comes as a surprise. What elements are in meat that aren't in bread, or vice versa? (I had expected that they were both, pretty near entirely, carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen, which is why the human body can digest bread and use it to grow - which is really a long-term way of transforming it into human flesh). Now, that would be interesting. It does require God's deliberate participation - in fact, all experiments to prove His existence do - so it's not going to work if He doesn't play ball. (Which brings us right back to the question of why He is so cagey about the whole existence thing at all...) There's a list of places where the new testament quotes or refers to the old over here []. I see gjm's already found this quote, but it might save you some future searches in similar circumstances.
2lisper5yOK, I was wrong about this. I thought that wine didn't contain iron, but it does. (I think I was conflating a different argument I was having with someone else over Jesus's alleged transmutation of water into wine. That would require nuclear transmutation.) But it doesn't matter. My whole point was that you wouldn't have to perform anywhere near even this level of miracle to convince me. Show me any reproducible phenomenon that is best explained by the existence of a deity and I'll believe.
1gjm5yI would expect there to be much more protein in meat than in bread, and therefore much more nitrogen.
1CCC5yHmmmmm. I didn't think of ratios, but this transsubstantiation would take place in the atmosphere - perhaps atmospheric nitrogen could be pulled in to make up the difference. Or some of the carbon, hydrogen and oxygen could be released into the atmosphere as gasses (carbon dioxide in the case of the oxygen). Or both. At the very least, a chemical transmutation theory would need to consider that possibility.
0CCC5yPerhaps you are right. It's not easy to be certain of this sort of hypothetical - I have a lot of confidence that there will be some people who react as per my prediction, and that there will be some people who react as per your prediction, but which group (if either) will gain enough backing to be considered the mainstream opinion is difficult, perhaps impossible, to tell.
0polymathwannabe5yWhat convinced you?
0lisper5yWhat convinced me of what? That my spiritual experience was a neurobiological phenomenon and not evidence of a deity?
2polymathwannabe5yWhat convinced you that your spiritual experience is more than purely neurobiological?
3lisper5yYou mean, at the time? When I was twelve? I have no idea. That was a long time ago. I can't reconstruct all the details of my thought processes back then. I suspect I just didn't think it through.
0polymathwannabe5yIf that isn't a mammoth-sized red flag for the solidity of your case, you and I inhabit separate conceptual universes.
0gjm5yYou do understand that lisper is not now claiming that spiritual experiences are genuine encounters with a non-natural reality, right?
2polymathwannabe5yLisper's words:
4lisper5yI really don't understand the problem here. In between "fantasies made up out of whole cloth" and "genuine communication with a deity" there is a broad range of possibilities, and I think the truth lies in that range rather than at either extreme. Spiritual experiences are real experiences, and they can feel like a genuine encounter with a deity without actually being a genuine encounter with a deity.
2gjm5yYes, but "more than mere fantasies made up" is not the same as "genuine encounters with a non-natural reality".
-1ChristianKl5yI think there a lot wrong with that paragraph. Mostly again stemming from confusing rational!new-atheist with rational!LW. This community does welcome religious people with open arms in the sense that it doesn't treat them badly just for being religious. One person converted from being atheist to Christianity while being employed by CFAR based on good reasoning. From a Bayesian perspective there evidence that Zeus exist as Tyrrell McAllister writes in What Bayesianism taught me []. There's definitely a shred of evidence as Scott describes in The Control Group Is Out Of Control []. The core question is whether that's enough to counteract our scepticism against those claims being true and most people in this community don't think the evidence is strong enough for that.
1lisper5yThat's interesting. Is this "good reasoning" recorded anywhere? I'd love to see it. Really? What is it? Before you answer, pay close attention to the wording of my claim: there is no evidence that spiritual experience is anything other than a neurophysiological phenomenon. Such evidence would have to be more than just something that could be caused by a deity, it would have to be something that could not be neurophysiological. And AFAICT, there really is not a single instance of such evidence. If you disagree, please cite the evidence you think exists and we can discuss it. BTW, this is not an extreme claim. There is zero evidence that quantum mechanics is false. There is zero evidence that general relativity is false. This is so despite the fact that we know that one or the other (possibly both) must in fact be false because they are logically incompatible with each other, so they can't both be true. And it is so despite the fact that the entire physics community is actively looking for such evidence, and that finding it would be considered a major breakthrough. Anyone who finds such evidence will almost certainly win the Nobel prize. Likewise, anyone who had actual evidence of a spiritual phenomenon that could not be (or even had a very low probability of being) neurophysiological will have made a major scientific breakthrough. So the fact that the headlines are not filled with stories of someone being feted for finding this evidence is evidence that such evidence does not exist.
0gjm5yThat's wrong. Something that couldn't be neurophysiological would be not merely evidence but proof (not necessarily of a deity, of course, but of some external cause). I suggest that, e.g., Srinivasa Ramanujan's experience of having mathematical insights given to him by the goddess Namagiri was evidence that he was in contact with a supernatural being -- but, of course, far less evidence than it would take to convince me that he really was in contact with such a being. For A to be evidence of B, all it takes is that A is more likely if B than if not-B. Dreams of goddesses handing out what turn out to be genuine (and highly unusual) mathematical insights are more likely if there are in fact goddesses able to hand out such insights than if there are not, because the existence of such goddesses would provide one more mechanism by which such dreams could occur. I would suggest that Ramanujan's experiences might be as much as 10:1 evidence for the existence of the goddess Namagiri Thayar. But, of course, every other mathematician who has insights without any sign of gods and goddesses getting involved is evidence against, quite apart from all the other reasons not to believe in Namagiri Thayar or any other goddess. Perhaps you are using the term "shred of evidence" to denote something more than that. Fair enough, I suppose, but then I'm afraid I think you chose your words badly.
2lisper5yVery well, I concede the point. I should not have said that "there is not a shred of evidence." Still, AFAICT the evidence favors neurobiology by a very substantial margin.
-3ChristianKl5yIt's [] I provided a link. Scott writes that Bem's meta-analysis in favor of paranormal phenomena makes the conclusion that paranormal phenomena exist with standards of evidence that are higher than those standards for a lot of phenomena we expect as real. That doesn't mean that you have to convinced by Bem's evidence but claiming that it isn't a shred of evidence is wrong. Interestingly you speak of deity's while I haven't said anything about deities. The question of whether deities exist is a different question then whether they are real spiritual experiences exist. Again that's a problem with the muddled notion of spiritual under which you wrote the opening post. You link ideas together that can exist independent from each other. It isn't. The amount of people investigating paranormal effects is quite small. In a world where there are no cultural forces that make people not want to accept such evidence that might be true. It took till 2008 till a Cochrane study concluded that chiropratics techniques have an effect on reducing back pain. Decades for recognizing a fairly ease to produce effect. Nobody got the Nobel Prize. Paradgim change is really hard. It's nothing that you get by someone making a new discovery that can easily conceptualized in the old ways of seeing the world and then newspapers convincing everybody that it's true. Reading Kuhn might be useful to understand how scientific change works.
2lisper5yOK, I concede the point. There may be a shred of evidence (but not much more than a shred, at least AFAICT). Only because "deity" is easier to type than "supernatural phenomenon." Well, yeah, that was actually my whole thesis: spiritual experiences are real even though the deities (or whatever) that some people ascribe them to are (almost certainly) not.
-2ChristianKl5yIn general scientific writing doesn't use five letter words that are easy to type but longer more precise words. In Bem's meta analysis case we are talking about extrasensory perception. Information transfer for which our existing theories don't account. Not just experience.
2lisper5ySure, but this is a comment thread, not a journal submission. I don't see why that is relevant. What difference does it make if it's God or ESP or leprechauns? Strong evidence for any of those would be enough to be of considerable interest. Also, can you please re-post the link to "Bem's meta analysis"? I can't figure out what you're referring to here. BTW, I read the Leah Libresco piece you referred me to. Thanks for the reference. I don't agree with you that it represents "good reasoning." Her reasoning was, essentially, "Someone has asked me a question for which I do not have a satisfactory answer. Therefore everything the Catholic church teaches must be true." That doesn't seem like good reasoning to me.
0ChristianKl5yWe are at a place that values reasoning. You are making a mistake in reasoning by switching different claims with each other. Again you make a reasoning mistake by confusing claims. I didn't said I linked to Bem's meta analysis. I said I linked to Scott Alexander's discussion of it. And I linked to it in the first sentence speaking about a shard of evidence. Is that too hard too find? But in general looking up papers isn't hard if you want to look up papers of Bem there's Google Scholar. If you are actually interested in the evidence than reading a bit Bem could be worthwhile to understand his arguments. To the extend that you think that's why Leah changed the position I don't think that summarizes what I know over the process from reading her writting. The information about her the ideological turing project might be distributed over more articles.
2lisper5yFair enough. I'll endeavor to be more precise. I'm trying to keep up with a lot of parallel threads here simultaneously, and backtracking a thread more than 2-3 steps is actually fairly time consuming because of the way the LW UI is set up. I was hoping you might do me a favor and save me the trouble of having to go back and figure out what you were referring to. But since you're giving me a hard time for my lack of precision and adherence to the conventions of scientific discourse, here is how Scott Alexander references Bem: "Bem, Tressoldi, Rabeyron, and Duggan (2014), full text available for download at the top bar of the link above..." The link that I presume he's referring to (the phrase "the link above" is ambiguous because there are many links above) has anchor text, "What now, motherfuckers?" which is not a phrase you find much in scientific discourse. I followed that link, and it leads to a page that has the abstract of the paper that I presume you're referring to, and a notation that says "Not available for download." So that's as far as I'm willing to go down that particular rabbit hole. Sorry. Life is short. Of course it is, and I read some of them. I don't have time to go back and read everything she's written. But going from being a non-theist to being a theist is a huge leap, and it calls for a better explanation than the one she gave if she wanted anyone to accept is as "good reasoning" rather than a straightforward leap of faith.
1CCC5yPut "?context=5" on the end of the comment's permalink url to backtrack 5 steps. So, for example, backtracking this comment 5 steps would be []
0lisper5yAha! Thanks!
1gjm5yI think this [] is the paper in question, completely online. I think this is official and not in any way illegitimately piratical. There is apparently a more recent revised version, but since even the first published version (to which that's a link) postdates Scott's article you should probably start with that.
0ChristianKl5yIf you don't actually want to evaluate the paper, the basic heuristic is to trust what a highly regarded member of this community with Scott Alexander says about it. It does provide a fair amount of evidence. It therefore makes sense to update and not continue to say that there's no evidence at all. We live at a time where that's the information that specifies a scientific paper. It's quite alright to say that you don't care about the evidence for paranormal phenomena and spend your time on other issues. If you however do care about the state of the evidence then there a time where it makes sense to read scientific papers instead about making arguments about what the evidence is based on what's reported in mainstream media. I have no problem with someone saying that he doesn't know or cares to know about the state of the evidence, but if that's your position don't claim that there's no evidence.
2lisper5yThe even more basic heuristic is to look at the history of psi claims and observe that the overwhelming majority of them have failed to stand up to scrutiny. It might even be true that not a single psi claim has ever stood up to scrutiny (though this depends a bit on what you mean by "scrutiny".) It is certainly true that no psi phenomenon has ever been reliably reproduced, and that the Randi prize went unclaimed [] despite there having been over 1000 applicants. One person's opinion, no matter how well respected, doesn't make much of a Bayesian dent in that mountain of negative evidence. People can be fooled, and people make mistakes. Even smart people. I already conceded this point [], so you are now attacking a straw man. If you're not going to cut me any slack over terminology [] the you should expect me to cut you any when you don't pay attention. (Though I submit that this conversation will be more fruitful if we both cut each other a little more slack.)
0ChristianKl5yThe linked paper is about a meta-study that described how a specifc psi phenomena was reliably reproduced. There's an older meta-review of Ganzfeld experiments that came to a similar result. Ganzfeld experiments have been multiple time reproduced. The standard of the Randi prize (betting chances of 1:1,000,000) is substantially more tough than the standards of evidence-based medicine (two trials that beat 1:20). You don't go around and say that there's no significant evidence that FDA approved drugs work because they aren't proven to work for Randi's standards.
2lisper5yThat's not what reliable reproduction means. What it means is that you would be willing to place a real-money bet on the outcome of a future experiment. Actually, there's good reason to believe that the drug testing process has some serious flaws. But even under ideal circumstances, the odds of getting a false positive are 1 in 400. There have been about 1500 drugs approved by the FDA [] so almost certainly at least 3 or 4 of them actually don't work. Those are good enough odds for me, particularly when compared to the alternatives. Yes, of course. If Randi had used the FDA standard, then with over 1000 applicants, you would expect two or three of them to win at 1:400 purely by chance. I'll take the bet at 1:400 confidence if you're willing to pay 1/40th of the prize as an entrance fee, and are willing to do the experiment more than once. In fact, I'll go you one better: You name any statistical test you think you can beat and I'll take a bet at 10:1 odds. Heck, make it 2:1. (If it's good enough for a Vegas casino, it's good enough for me.) Truthfully, that's a bet I would be absolutely thrilled to lose. But my prediction is that you will not accept this offer.
0ChristianKl5yCould you refer me to any authoritive scientific body that defines the test of what scientific results are defined as reliably produced over real-money bets? I think you can make an argument that the scientific establishment should work that way, but if you consider that to be the sole standard you have to throw out most scientific findings because nobody ever bet on them. I think Dean Radin or Bem might be open to do a run at the Ganzfeld experiment provided the amount of money involved justifies the effort or there reputation to be gained by a prominent skeptic holding the other side of the bet. On the other hand I'm personally not in the business of doing parapsychology experiments.
2lisper5yYou are asking me to advance an argument from authority? Seriously? That's not true. You place implicit bets on the reliable reproducibility of scientific results every time you use any piece of modern technology. If you've ever flown in an airplane you have actually staked your life on the proposition that scientific results are reliably reproducible. And, BTW, the reason very few people ever place "real" bets on the reliable reproducibility of scientific results is that there's a shortage of suckers stupid enough to bet against it. Aaaaand... here come the excuses. What a surprise. I'm not asking you to conduct the experiment, I'm just asking you how much you'd be willing to bet. For my part, I'll put up $10,000.
0ChristianKl5yThere a plenty of Yoga people who produce reliable Yoga results by using a theory that assumes the existance of chakra's. That doesn't prove the theory of chakra's to be right. Successful technology is not the same thing as successful science. Futhermore there's a lot of science which is not effectively used in technology, do you consider that to be illegimate? The core idea with betting is to be specific about the terms of the bet. If you wan to bet about whether Bem or Dean Radin produce publishable statistically significant results for paranormal phenomena in the future, then I would be pretty confident that they do. It's just that I don't expect you to take such a bet, because you likely would want some sort of tamperproof enviroment. That's where things get complicated and I'm not interested in setting up such an enivroment. People like Bem or Radin on the other hand seem to me open to be engaged in such a way. People who are publically on the record for stating that their reason not to participate in Randi experiment was that their effect sizes where lower than what's required for Randi. For my myself the topic isn't worth the effort of building up experiments and investing hundreds of hours for that. Apart from that I personally don't take bets with strangers and if I would than rather about topics where there definite evidence in one direction and not topics that are grey.
2lisper5yThat's why I specified modern technology. Computers. Airplanes. Microwave ovens. That's a non-sequitur. Your claim was: In fact, every time you turn on your cell phone you are placing an implicit bet on vast swaths of scientific knowledge []. That there might be additional areas of scientific knowledge that you aren't placing bets on doesn't change that. Here are the terms: choose your favorite psi experiment where the odds of a positive result based on pure chance are objectively computable. Let's say those odds are N:1. We bet at M*N:1 odds for some multiplier M>=2. If you make M larger than 2 that indicates greater confidence and you get more bragging rights should you win. We iterate until you either concede, or you have won $10,000 from me. There are well known techniques for extracting signals from noisy channels to any desired level of statistical confidence. Physicist regularly get six-sigma results (odds of resulting by change of less than one in 3 million) from signal-to-noise ratios in the negative tens of dB. This is part of what it means to be "reliably reproducible." Well, duh. Any intellectually honest seeker of the truth should want some assurances that they are not being deceived.
-1gjm5yI don't think that's fair. More like: "Someone has asked me a question for which the least unsatisfactory answer I can find is that there is a god who somewhat resembles that of Christianity; I have already decided that Roman Catholicism is the most plausible variety of theism; therefore I shall convert to Roman Catholicism". She doesn't say explicitly the bit about having already decided that RCism is the most plausible sort of theism, but it seems clear from context. The step from theism-in-general to RCism-in-particular is, though, something Leah seems particularly unwilling to justify in any way that would make sense to a skeptic, and I agree it looks like a very weak point. Just not quite as weak as you represent it as being :-).
2lisper5ySure, I'd agree with that. Sometimes when trying to be brief one fails to capture all of the subtle nuances of someone else's argument. But one way or another, I think she skipped a step or two. I can see how you can get to something resembling "morality loves me". What I don't see is how you get from there to "Jesus, an actual flesh-and-blood human being (who was also the physical embodiment of the omniscient omnipresent omnipotent deity who created the universe) died for my sins, and this is an actual point of physical fact, not merely an allegorical myth."
1gjm5yThe quality of the reasoning involved is debatable, and Leah's apparent reluctance to say more about just how the reasoning went doesn't seem like a good sign. (For the avoidance of doubt, I firmly agree that Leah is very intelligent and I'm sure she was trying to reason well. But even very intelligent people trying to reason well perpetrate bad reasoning sometimes.)
-1ChristianKl5yWhen I say good reasoning then I mean using the ideological turing test to decide which experts know most about the subject and then copying the judgement of those experts. That's not the only thing that Leah did, but bootstraping priors in that way is a pretty sophisticated way to reason. It's an impressive example on focusing more on using a reasoning technique than focusing on achiving the generally accepted results that your social circle wants you to achieve. As far as relucatance goes, I think most people aren't fully transparent about all reasoning that goes into major belief changes in written articles.
2gjm5yAlthough Leah hasn't been terribly forthcoming about how her conversion happened, I think she's said enough to be pretty sure that it wasn't that. What makes you think it was? Read the blog post you linked to. She doesn't say anything about ideological Turing tests; she doesn't say anything about deferring to the judgement of experts-on-religion; she says she had a lot of trouble figuring out how to make sense of ethics and decided that "Morality just loves me or something" provided the best explanation. My understanding is that a lot of Leah's social circle was RC even before she converted.
-1ChristianKl5yShe did elsewhere. She run the first ideological Turing test for religion. Theists scored better. A catholic scored best overall. I didn't reread the article. I just took the link from Wikipedia's page on ideological turing tests that points to her moving to Catholics.
0gjm5yI think you are mixing up the true proposition * Leah ran an ideological Turing test, in which theists scored better than atheists, AND * Leah converted to Catholicism with the false proposition * Leah ran an ideological Turing test, in which theists scored better than atheists, AND SO * Leah converted to Catholicism. ... also neither claims nor implies that Leah's conversion was a result of her finding that Christians did better than atheists in her ideological Turing test.
0polymathwannabe5yNo, I didn't think your metaphor was meant to imply we failed to see the spiritual because of all the mental discipline. What I found offensive was the idea that we failed to see the spiritual despite of all the mental discipline. Your example with addicts can backfire. Ex-addicts become good sobriety counselors the same way ex-believers become good advocates for reason. And the whole idea of comparing spirituality with addiction... it's like you're making my arguments for me.
4lisper5yOK, then I'm back to being puzzled about this. There's no more shame in not having spiritual experiences than there is in being color blind. Well, I'm pretty sure that when the dust settles it will turn out that we agree on more than we disagree. In fact, it's a theorem [] ;-)
-4Old_Gold5yIt shouldn't. Unfortunately, "taking offense" is some people's standard reaction to arguments they can't refute.
2gjm5yIt's also some people's standard reaction to being insulted. And an argument can be irrefutable (1) by being right, (2) by being too vague and allusive to get a grip on, or (3) by being nonsense. Or (4) by there actually being no argument to refute. In this case, lisper hasn't made any actual argument for characterizing not having "spiritual experiences" as a kind of blindness, he's just gone ahead and done it. (There's no shame in being colour-blind, says lisper. Quite true. There should be no shame in being unintelligent either, but most people here would be greatly displeased at being called unintelligent. There should be no shame in being ugly, but most people -- perhaps fewer here than in most venues -- would be greatly displeased at being called ugly.)
0lisper5yBeing stupid or ugly is not quite the same as being color-blind or spirituality-blind because stupidity and ugliness have a more direct impact on your reproductive fitness,
3gjm5yOf course it's not quite the same. Neither is being stupid quite the same as being ugly. But do you really think a thing is only a real insult if it's about something that directly impacts your reproductive fitness? That seems a very odd idea to me. (And I question whether being intelligent -- as opposed to unintelligent, rather than outright stupid -- is a net benefit to reproductive fitness; I would guess that typical reproductive fitness is no worse at IQ 100 than at IQ 140. If you think "unintelligent" implies stupider than that, feel free to pretend I said "not especially intelligent" instead of "unintelligent".)
0Conscience5yAnd because stupidity have more direct impact on IQ score, uglyness on actor profession opportunities, color-blind on painter options and spirituality-blindness on inner feeling of well-being perhaps?
0chaosmage5yIf we're being very charitable, spirituality-blindness might mean something like "low trait absorption [])" which would imply a reduced ability to benefit from placebo effects. edit: Sorry, I didn't figure out how to make a link that includes a closing bracket work in this comment syntax.
2gjm5yReplacing it with %29 will do. I'm not sure whether preceding it with a backslash does. Let's see. URL-encoding with percent signs: trait absorption []. Backslashes on parentheses:trait absorption [\(psychology\]). Looks like they both work.
0polymathwannabe5yHave you had spiritual experiences? How do you explain them? How would you convince others of the reality of those experiences?
0CCC5yOr, to put it another way, some people believe in God because they have seen evidence of God. Well... okay. I don't really think that can be argued against. In fact, looking at the bible, Phillipians 3 verse 3: suggests that there was at the very least rejoicing, which is what one might expect from a sense of euphoria. Also, climbing them. Okay... I think I'd be more interested in trying to convince them that the other side of the canyon exists, and there's more space for houses and farms there and thus this "bridge" idea that I keep going on about is not as stupid as you think it is you idiots! ...I might lose my temper with them on occasion. But it's really the same question, at the heart of it. How do I convince someone of the existence of something that they cannot directly observe, and that, indeed, they have a strong social pressure against admitting the existence of? I can tell them about it; they will laugh and shake their heads. I can describe it in detail - someone will ask what lies behind the little hill, and when I cannot tell him, he will laugh and say that that is why this 'sight' I keep going on about cannot possibly exist, because it is no harder to feel on one side of the hill than the other. I can attempt to build a bridge - and the Blind will work to stop me, describing how no such structure has ever succeeded in the past, even when I managed to persuade others to help me (in vain will I point out the width of the canyon, the crumbliness of the far edge, or the fact that letting a blind man lower the bridge was why it fell into the canyon last time) and it is all a waste of resources.
6lisper5yYes. Exactly. Religious people have a similarly intricate web of self-reinforcing evidence for their beliefs. The "evidence" of God's handiwork is all around you, even in the trees. In fact, it is so difficult to see why all of the intricacies of nature are not evidence of an intelligent designer that it took humans many millennia to figure it out, and it is considered a major intellectual accomplishment. Evolution is only obvious in retrospect. OK, but now consider this question: what evidence could your blind peers offer that would convince you that what you think you are seeing is not in fact real, but is actually just an epiphenomenon of some neurobiological process going on entirely inside your brain?
0CCC5yHmmmm. Tricky. I can see it. Without trees on this side - and specifically, without wood - I presumably can't build a bridge over to the other side. (And if I could, then I'd have plenty of proof that it exist and I break the metaphor) So, we can't go over there and observe it directly (by means of touch, a sense that everyone shares). The only evidence I have for the existence of the other side of the canyon is sight - I can see it. I imagine that if the blind people could somehow convince me that sight is really hallucination - that is to say, what I "see" is entirely an internal process within the brain and not at all related to external reality in any way (except perhaps insofar that I only "see" what I expect to "see") - then that would be sufficient to make me question the reality of the other side of the canyon. ...I guess I could throw a rock at it and listen for the impact
4lisper5yCool, then you get it. Note that it is not necessary for all of your visions (sic!) to be hallucinations to sustain this puzzle. It's enough that faraway things are illusory. Maybe you're living in a "Truman Show"-style virtual reality, where the far side of the canyon is actually a projected image. (A mirage is a real-world example of something that looks very different from its true nature when viewed from far away.)
1CCC5yHmmm. True, but now we're talking about a world specifically designed to produce the appearance of the opposite side of the canyon even when it doesn't exist. I think that we can, at least tentatively, discount active malevolence as an explanation for why I see the opposite side of the canyon. Mind you, I'm not saying it can't be a mirage. If I'm short-sighted - so that everything beyond a certain distance is blurry and unrecognisable - and there just happens to be a large reflective surface partway across the canyon - then I may see the reflection of this side of the canyon, fail to recognise it due to the blurring, and claim that there is an opposite side to the canyon. (This can be recognised by a simple test, should anyone manage to produce prescription spectacles). -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- But let us say that my blind peers bring me incredibly convincing evidence for the idea that there is no other side of the canyon. They are very persuasive in that this "sight" business is a brain disease caused by being out and about in the heat of the day, making my brain overheat, and only in the coolness of night, when all is dark, am I sane. (And, sure enough, when it's dark then it's too dark to see the other side of the canyon). But none of this is evidence that there is no other side. The other side could still be there - even if every argument advanced by my blind peers is true - and while I am sitting here questioning my sanity, the other side continues to sit there, perhaps visible to me alone, but nonetheless visible, and I should not throw that evidence away.
2lisper5yNot necessarily. That just happened to be the case in "The Truman Show." We actually have a real-world version of this scenario going on in cosmology right now. There are two "trees" on the far side of the canyon: dark matter and dark energy, both of which are just labels for "the mysterious unknown thing that causes the observed data to not match up with the currently best available theories". (Note that in the tree scenario you would not have the word "tree" in your vocabulary, or if you did, it could not possibly mean anything other than "The mysterious unknown thing on the far side of the canyon that looks completely unlike anything nearby.") BTW, have you ever seen a mirage? They look very convincing at a distance, even with sharp vision.
0CCC5yYes, but if the universe is an intentional simulation, then someone is running it. (I haven't seen the film myself, but I understand that someone was actually running the Truman Show). The atheist hypothesis is that there is no-one running the universe - claiming that the universe has been designed, by someone, to give the impression of having been designed by someone when, in actuality, there was no designer of the universe is somewhat self-contradictory. Not quite the same thing. There's no debate on whether or not those trees exist, there's merely debate on exactly what those trees are. Yes, the type where you look along a long, straight road on a hot day and the more distant portion of the road appears to vanish, leaving the sides of the road apparently delimiting a patch of sky. Mirages can be convincing, but they can't look like anything, and they're very dependent on where the observer stands and the air temperature on the day, so they can be tested for.
2lisper5yI think you're conflating the features of a hypothetical universe that I conjured up to make a point with what I believe to be the case in the world we live in. In the world we live in, there is no evidence that we are in an intentional simulation. All the evidence is that everything we can see arises from simple processes (where "simple" is meant in the technical sense of having low Kolmogorov complexity [] ). I'm not sure that's really what you meant to say, but that is not the "atheist hypothesis." The atheist hypothesis is that the appearance of design can come about in ways other than having a designer (like natural selection or anthropic bias), and so the appearance of design is not slam-dunk proof of the existence of a Designer. Of course. Analogies are never perfect.
0CCC5yOkay, I can see that I was unclear. Let me clarify my point. Well, two points and a conclusion. Point 1) The Truman Show Hypothesis is that the world has been intentionally designed to appear, in some way, to be something that it is not, and any new attempts to discover the true nature of the universe will be foiled by an active opposing intelligence which is running said universe. Point 2) The "atheist hypothesis" is that there is no-one running the universe. Conclusion, taking both point 1 and point 2 into account: Claiming that the universe has been designed, by someone, to give the impression of having been designed by someone when, in actuality, there was no designer of the universe is somewhat self-contradictory. This does not imply that the universe could appear to be different to how it is. It merely states that if there is no-one running the universe, then the universe can not be run in such a way as to actively prevent every possible means to find its true nature - the universe, in that case, must be running entirely on natural laws without an active intelligence behind them. ...I hope that's clearer. -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Now, if we are living in a universe that we merely fail to properly understand, then eventually someone will figure it out, because there is not an active intelligence preventing that figuring out.
2lisper5yOh, I see. When I brought up the Truman Show I didn't mean for the intentionality of it to be relevant. I just brought it up as an illustrative example of how distant things could have a fundamentally different cause (not necessarily an intentional one) than nearby things. Let me try this again: there are subjective experiences that some people have and other people don't (seeing trees, hearing the Voice of God). To those who have them, those subjective experiences feel like they are caused by external factors (real trees, actual deities). For various reasons (canyons, the desire of deities to preserve human free will or whatever) the question of whether those subjective experiences are actually caused by trees or deities, or whether they are simple neurobiological phenomena (i.e. illusions), resists experimental inquiry. Under those circumstances, how do you decide whether these subjective experiences are actually evidence of trees or deities, or whether they are illusions? The point is that this is not necessarily an easy question to answer. The fact that God doesn't talk to you is not slam-dunk evidence that God does not exist, just as the fact that the blind people can't see the tree on the other side of the canyon is not slam-dunk evidence that the tree isn't real. Likewise, the fact that many people hear the Voice of God is not slam-dunk evidence that He does exist, just as the fact that you can see the tree is not slam-dunk evidence that the tree exists.
0CCC5y...oh, right. My apologies for misunderstanding you, then. So, what you were suggesting was basically some form of mirage, then. Completely agreed. If it was an easy question to answer, then there would not be nearly so many debates about it. Mind you, in the case of the tree, there is an experiment that can prove its existence, or lack thereof - one merely needs to find a way to get close enough to touch it. (Similarly, it is possible to prove God exists, if He agrees - if He pushes some clouds aside and says "Look, everybody, here I am!", then that'll be pretty convincing evidence, for anyone who happens to see it at least). Of course, these experiments are at least difficult and perhaps impossible to set up...
4lisper5yIt was supposed to be ambiguous, that's the whole point. It's a thought experiment designed to get a non-believer to understand what it's like to be someone who believes in God because they have had a subjective experience that, to them, is indistinguishable from hearing the Voice of God. Non-believers seem to have a really hard time imagining that (outside the context of mental illness), so I thought it might be easier to imagine being someone who believes in trees because you have had a subjective experience that is indistinguishable to you from seeing a real tree, but under circumstances where you cannot share that experience with anyone else except through testimony. Yes. Hence the canyon. Yes, if God wanted to prove Her existence She certainly could. But the theory is that She chooses to remain hidden because She wants us to make up our own minds about whether or not to believe. (Unless you're a Calvinist [], in which case you deny that humans have free will and things get rather bizarre.)
0CCC5yQuite, yes. The thought experiment was that I saw what looked like a tree on the other side of the canyon. It could be a tree, it could be a mirage - my sight is telling me it's a tree, but there are a lot of blind people around who are telling me there's no such thing as trees, and I have no evidence beyond that of my sight. It's a really good analogy, and I like it very much. Well - we know that She (male pronouns are often used, but I'm pretty sure God is genderless) chooses to remain hidden - currently, at least. (Interestingly, if one looks at certain parts of the Old Testament - particularly much of Exodus - it seems that God wasn't always so cagey. Parting the Red Sea and dropping it on Pharoah's army was hardly a subtle miracle. And then there was the manna in the desert...) But whether that's because She wants us to make up our own minds about whether or not to believe or for some other reason, I can't really offer an opinion on. It's possible that She'd be willing to cooperate in an experiment if we could find the right experiment, for whatever reason - but it's also possible, given current behaviour, that God will simply refuse to cooperate with any experiment intended to prove Her existence beyond doubt...
4lisper5yThank you! You just made my day. Yeah, but those good old days are apparently behind us. It's a shame that God didn't think to make a video. Now that would have been cool! One of the things that I've often heard Christians say is, "God could do X and Y and Z (because He (they never refer to God as She) is omnipotent) but He chooses not to." The idea of an omnipotent deity whose behavior is reliably predictable by mere mortals has always struck me as logically incoherent. But what do I know? ;-)
0CCC5yIt would have, yes! ...probably wouldn't have survived long enough to be usable in modern video players, though. I don't think there's many physical media that can manage a few thousand years in the desert, short of a miracle. Well, the argument goes that "God could do X and Y and Z, and no other force could prevent God from doing X and Y and Z, because omnipotence. Yet I observe that X and Y and Z are not, in fact, done. Assuming that my observations are not in error, this means that X and Y and Z were not done; I know that the only reason why God might not do X and Y and Z is by choosing not to, since no force can stop God. Therefore, God must have chosen not to do X and Y and Z." So it's not really prediction as much as it is observation (and fitting those observations into existing ideas about reality).
6lisper5yThe desert is actually quite good at preserving all manner of things. But this is neither here nor there. If God had wanted a video of the parting of the Red Sea so survive to modern times He could surely have arranged it because, well, that's kind of what it means to be omnipotent. No, it really is prediction: God will never again reveal Himself unambiguously the way he once did []. He will forever be the god of the gaps, hiding in the fringes of statistical distributions [] and the private subjective experiences of believers [] .
3Lumifer5yFor a mere mortal you seem to be very sure of what God will or will not ever do.
1lisper5yI am indeed quite confident in my prediction that God will never again make the sun stand still. I'm a little surprised that anyone here on LW would find this remarkable.
2Lumifer5yOn the basis of what? (no, I'm not asking you to quote me the appropriate chapter and verse) There is an old theological debate about constraints on God. Is He really omnipotent, literally, or there are things He is unable to do? I don't think this debate has a satisfactory resolution. Why are you surprised about finding this attitude on LW?
2lisper5yUm... physics? Really? If you are willing to seriously entertain the possibility that the answer could be "no", why is that not a satisfactory resolution? It seems to me to be consistent with all the data. I guess I'm surprised to find religious people here. Pleasantly surprised, but surprised nonetheless. I've never understood how anyone can maintain faith in the face of rational scrutiny. Maybe someone here will be able explain it to me.
-1Lumifer5yGod is not constrained by physics, is He? Which data? I am not religious. One obvious answer is reliance on personal experience.
4lisper5yI'm pretty sure He is [] . Oh my goodness, where to begin? How about here []. I didn't say you were. That's usually a mistake [].
1gjm5yHmm. I don't see how else to make sense of the exchange you and Lumifer have just had. Let me follow the steps backward, and you can tell me what I've got wrong. (Unless all you mean is that you only implied Lumifer is religious by saying things that don't make sense on other assumptions, and didn't explicitly say he is. In which case I agree but I'm not sure why it's relevant: Lumifer's denial of religiosity is just as relevant if you merely implied its contrary as if you explicitly stated it.) * You said [] "I guess I'm surprised to find religious people here". * That was in response to Lumifer's question [] "Why are you surprised about finding this attitude on LW?". * I infer that you were surprised about finding "this attitude" here because doing so amounts to finding religious people. * I infer that you consider that "this attitude" indicates that its holder is a religious person. * OK, so what's "this attitude"? Lumifer asked that question in response to your saying [] "I'm a little surprised that anyone here on LW would find this remarkable." (That wasn't the whole content of your comment, but I don't think any other part of it can reasonably be thought to be what Lumifer was referring to.) * So "this attitude" is evidently "find[ing] this remarkable". What's "this"? * You said that in response to Lumifer's statement [] "For a mere mortal you seem to be very sure of what God will or will not ever do." * I don't see how to take all this other than as saying that (1) you (reasonably) interpret that remark of Lumifer's as finding your confidence about what God will do remarkable, and (2) consider that attitude -- i.e., finding your confidence remarkable -- to indicate that its h
1lisper5yMy surprise at finding religious people on LW was not specifically a reaction to anything Lumifer said, it was more general than that. I guess my surprise was triggered more by something ChristianKi said [] in another branch of this discussion than anything Lumifer said. But this has become a very long and branchy discussion so it's very likely that any attempt on my part to reconstruct my past mental states will have some errors. I tentatively concluded that Lumifer was religious because that seemed like the most charitable interpretation of his remarks to that point. When he told me he wasn't, I update my Bayesian posteriors and concluded that he's probably a troll. But I didn't want to say so because my Bayesian estimate on the possibility that he might have something worthwhile to teach me is not yet indistinguishable from zero. But it's getting damn close.
0Lumifer5yWhen you say "God is constrainted by physics", what do you mean by the word "God"? The God of Abraham, being omnipotent, doesn't seem to be. Not sure, what a link to Wikipedia on theodicy is doing here. As to not relying on personal experience, well, it calls to mind "Who are you going to believe, me or your own lying eyes?" X-)
0lisper5yOK, I'm getting a little confused about what point you're trying to make. Most of the time when people talk about what God can and cannot do it's because they believe God is real. But you said you're not religious, so you don't believe God is real. So what does it even mean for a non-real God to be omnipotent? The reason I'm confident that God is constrained by the laws of physics is that I believe that God is a fictional character. That doesn't mean God doesn't exist, it means that He exists in a different ontological category [] than people who believe in God think He's in. Fictional characters are subject to the laws of physics insofar as they can only do things that their authors can describe, and so they are subject to the limitations of computability theory. God cannot tell us the value of Chaitin's Omega [] to more precision than we ourselves can compute it. Fictional characters can have effects in the real world. People alter their behavior because of things that fictional characters are reported to have said. But those kinds of effects are still limited by the laws of physics, and generally do not extend to making radical changes in the angular velocity of a planet, hence my confident prediction.
3Lumifer5yGenerally speaking, if you are discussing things like attributes of God, there are two positions you might take. One position is that God is not real, so discussing His attributes is no better than debating patterns on wings of fairies. At this point we're done, there is nothing else to say. Another position is to add an implicit "conditional on God being real" to statements. That allows you to discuss e.g. theology without necessarily being religious. I thought we are operating in the second mode, but if we're not, there isn't really anything to talk about, is there? And when you said "I am indeed quite confident in my prediction that God will never again make the sun stand still" what you meant was simply "it did not happen" -- right? The "again" was an unnecessary flourish? Fictional characters are subject to fictional laws of physics in the fictional worlds the authors create. If you just want to say that gods do not exist, the question of whether they are subject to (real) laws of physics is a nonsensical question. Not quite. People's beliefs (which might or might not involve fictional characters) do have effects in reality via actions of these people. But that's a trivial observation, so I'm not sure of the point you're making.
2lisper5yI disagree. People can (and do) have interesting and constrained discussions and even debates about fictional characters [] all the time. OK, but that begs the question of which god (lower-case g) you're conditioning on. This was actually the mode I was arguing in when I cited the story of Rabbi Eliezer and the carob tree. That too, but they are also subject to constraints imposed by the theory of computation on their authors (at least so long as their authors are Turing machines). That actually rules out omnipotent gods even in fiction. Simply saying that something is omnipotent doesn't make it omnipotent even in a fictional world. It might be a trivial observation, but it has very profound consequences that are not immediately apparent. Specifically, there's a positive feedback loop where certain beliefs produce effects which provide evidence that support those beliefs. Such beliefs can become self-sustaining even in cases where the beliefs themselves are objectively false. But because they are self-sustaining, they can be very hard to dislodge. Ironically, an example of such a self-sustaining but objectively false belief is the belief that rationalism will win the battle of ideas, or even that it's a better way to live your life, simply because, well, it's rational. (I'm not saying you believe this, but many people do.)
0Lumifer5ySince the context of the discussion involved quotes from Torah/Bible, I thought it was apparent. Speaking of ontological categories... Humans are not Turing machines. Sure, but I still don't see it as particularly profound. It happens all the time and is the mechanism involved in some well-known biases. I understand your point that "personal experience" of a believer is suspect as evidence and that point has some validity, but this is a complex discussion involving interpretations, cultural expectations, philosophy of qualia, etc. etc. :-)
2lisper5yIt isn't apparent. Genesis is part of three different religious traditions with radically different theologies. For example, there's a rich tradition in Judaism of arguing with God, and even winning sometimes (e.g. Exo32:9-14), something which would be unthinkable in Christianity or Islam. The software processes running on human brains can, as far as anyone can tell [–Turing_thesis], be modeled by a Turing machine, so if a TM can't do it, neither can a human, and hence neither can any fictional character a human can describe. I guess we'll just have to agree to disagree about that.
0gjm5y"But it's not true!"
0CCC5yThat would run contrary to omnipotence.
0lisper5yIndeed it would.
0Jiro5yYour blind peers can't bring you convincing evidence that there's no other side to the canyon unless there actually is no other side to the canyon. It's like asking "what if homeopaths provided you with incredibly convincing evidence that homeopathy worked, would you still cling to what science says?" (The answer is that if it was possible to produce incredibly convincing evidence for homeopathy, we would be in a very different world than we are now, and science would be saying different things.)
0CCC5yOn the contrary, it is quite possible to come up with some very convincing arguments for something that is false. There are many ways to do this, either by means of flawed argument, logical fallacy, carefully selecting only the evidence that supports a given theory, and so on. If I am sufficiently cautious in examining the arguments, I may identify the flaws and expose them - but it is also possible that I may fail to notice the flaws, because I am not perfect. A homeopath can provide a convincing argument by providing a very long list of people who were ill, took a homeopathic remedy, and then recovered; and accompanying it with a very long list of people who were ill, took no homeopathic remedy, and got worse. Anyone who notices the cherry-picking of evidence will see the flaw in that argument, but it will nonetheless convince many people.
0Jiro5yI don't consider "evidence which would convince at least some people" to be "incredibly convincing evidence". Even poorly convincing evidence will convince someone--poorly convincing evidence isn't the same as nonconvincing evidence.
1CCC5yAh, I think we have the point of disconnect here. I consider "incredibly convincing evidence" to be any evidence which would convince me. I am aware that this includes some flawed evidence that would convince me of incorrect things, but I can't provide a good example, because if I knew how it was flawed then it would not convince me (and if it has convinced me, then I don't know that it is flawed). Thus, yes, my examples were only vaguely convincing, in order to make the flaws clearer.
5Lumifer5yI don't see that as a controversial claim, it looks obviously true to me. You should drop this analogy. The "information entering your brain" is very much NOT the same in both cases.
5lisper5yIt seems obviously true to me too. And yet I seem to be having the very devil of a time convincing some people that it is true. Yes, it is. This is a technical claim, and it is demonstrably true. I mean "information" in the information-theoretical sense, i.e. the log of the number of distinguishable states a system can be in. That the information is the same in both cases can be shown by showing that either system can be reconstructed from the other. The grooves can be reconstructed from the audio (this is how the grooves were created in the first place), and the audio can be reconstructed from the grooves (this is what happens when you play the record.) If you want to challenge this claim, please mount an argument. Don't just proclaim that it's false.
3Lumifer5yYeah, so? Some people just don't want to be convinced, why should you spend your time and effort on them? Information in the information-theoretical sense does not "enter the brain". The audio can be reconstructed from the grooves, but not by the brain. Simply put, the brain does not have the same information in those two cases. In particular, the brain does not care about some abstract theoretical information equivalence. It's just a brain, not an idealized infomation-processing agent.
2lisper5yI'm really beginning to wonder. Of course it does. That too is easily demonstrated. Maybe your brain doesn't care, but mine does.
2Lumifer5yEnlighten me, please.
1lisper5yThis: is irrelevant to the question of how the information flows. The information that comprises music is stored on the record, not the record player. The player merely transduces that information from one format (grooves) to another (sound). The brain can't do that transduction process, but it can (and does) process the information. The proof is that a brain equipped with suitable tools could make a copy of a record (and hence the information on that record) by looking at and making measurements of the grooves.
1Lumifer5yThat's not what "processes information" means. A photocopier does not "process information" when it makes a copy of a document. It just makes a copy. Similarly, a brain could peer at the grooves all it likes, and, presumably, could make a copy of them, but that makes it no better than a record-producing machine. Your claim is, essentially, that from the brain's point of view the information in the grooves and the information in the music is the same. However the brain cannot convert the grooves to the music (or the music to the grooves). It requires the transformation be made externally before it can process the information.
4lisper5yI really don't want to quibble over the meaning [] of the word "process". The original claim was: And that is clearly true. It doesn't matter how (or even whether) that information is "processed". Note that your re-statement of my claim, "from the brain's point of view the information in the grooves and the information in the music is the same" is not my actual claim. I said nothing about "the brain's point of view". That phrase is non-sensical with respect to an information-theoretical analysis. If you really want to get technical, there is a "point of view" with respect to information content, and that is the repertoire of distinguishable states that a system can be said to potentially be in. The choice of that repertoire is arbitrary, and so can be said to be a "point of view." There is an implied "point of view" with respect to music, and that is the ability to reconstruct the audio waveform within the range of human hearing, roughly 20HZ-20kHz. With respect to that "point of view", my claim is correct, and can actually be mathematically proven to be correct by the Nyquist sampling theorem. What is not the same -- and this is the whole point -- is the subjective experience of having the same information entering your brain through different sensory modalities. The intellectual understanding of spiritual experience in terms of neurobiology or whatever is very different from the actual subjective experience, and if you haven't had the actual subjective experience, your understanding of spirituality is necessarily limited by that.
4gjm5yYou're collapsing two distinctions. One is between information structured in such a way as to operate on our brains so as to produce a subjective response, and information that we have to do some work to interpret. (E.g., music in the form of sound waves versus music in the form of a printed score -- at least, for people who understand music notation but don't have the fluency of some professional musicians who can look at a score and "hear" what it says.) The other is between information we are able to make sense of and information we aren't. (E.g., the text of a novel, and the same thing after encryption using a cipher I don't know how to break, with a key I don't know.) In practice some things are intermediate. (E.g., the text of a novel, and the same thing after "encryption" with ROT13.) Giving me a micrograph of an LP's grooves is much more like the second of those than like the first. Maybe the information is interpretable in principle -- I guess I could measure very carefully, and then do a Fourier transform by hand and figure out what frequences are present, etc., etc., etc. -- but in practice, showing me those micrographs is going to convey essentially no information about the music to me. I'm not much better off than if you'd encrypted the data (and certainly worse than if you'd just ROT13ed it.) So when you contrast music and words, you're confusing matters because most of the difference you profess to find is not between music and words, but between different degrees of "difficulty" in reconstructing the content in a form we can make use of. If you'd compared "listening to the audiobook of a novel" with "reading the text of the novel, after encryption with a cipher of moderate difficulty" you'd have had something much nearer to the comparison between "listening to music" and "looking at micrographs of a record groove" -- and you'd no longer have found so big a difference between words and music. The thing is, you could have done this right and it w
2lisper5yWell, OK, but this is a very different kind of critique than you were offering before. Before you were making a simple (and wrong) technical claim: Now you're mounting a critique of my rhetorical choices. It's a constructive critique, so I thank you for that. But let me explain why I made the choice that I did. The point I was trying to make is that the subjective sensation of spiritual experience matters. It is too facile to dismiss God as simply "a pernicious delusion" as Dawkins does. There are people for whom a phenomenon that they call "the presence of the holy spirit" (or whatever) is every bit as real and non-delusional as the phenomenon that you call "hearing the music" is for you. Their explanatory theory of this phenomenon is wrong, but their experience is a real experience, not a delusion. The difference between music and spiritual experience is that all humans have the subjective experience of hearing music (even deaf people []!) but not all humans have spiritual experiences. So I had to find a way to illustrate the reality of spiritual experience to an audience which by and large has not had such experiences and is generally predisposed to dismiss them as delusions. I considered and discarded many possible ways of doing this, and finally settled on music because of its universality. But the subjective sensation of reading sheet music depends on how much you have been trained to read sheet music, and I didn't want to muddy the waters with that kind of relativity. So for the counterpoint I wanted a rendering of music that no human has been trained to process. I picked grooves in the hopes that people would intuitively understand that the music is somehow there, but you can't "get at the essence of it" by looking. You have to do something else. In the same way, you can't "get at the essence" of a spiritual experience by understanding the neurobiology of it and calling it a delusion. You have to do something el
3gjm5yNo, that wasn't me, it was Lumifer. That doesn't seem to me like a good description of what I'm doing. In particular, my criticism is not mostly about the rhetorical effect of what you wrote, but about its logic. The boundary between experience and explanation is fuzzy and porous, but it seems to me that when (say) Richard Dawkins calls belief in God a pernicious delusion, what he is saying is precisely that believers' explanatory theory of their experiences is wrong, not that they didn't have the experiences. The same goes, I think, for most other atheists who loudly criticize theism and theists. So I fear you may be tilting at windmills. But I must say a few words about the fuzziness and porousness of that boundary. Suppose I have a hallucination, think I see my dead grandmother, and conclude that I have seen a ghost. And suppose you don't believe ghosts are real. I say to you "I saw the ghost of my dead grandmother". You say "No, you didn't". Are you denying my experience, or my interpretation of it? I think you might reasonably deny two things I would claim, while accepting a third. You accept that I had an experience as of seeing my dead grandmother. You deny that I actually saw an actual thing that resembled my dead grandmother. And you deny, more specifically, that I saw a ghost. Something similar -- though of course it needn't involve outright hallucination -- may happen with religious experiences. I feel an overwhelming sense of love and acceptance and majesty; I conceptualize this as experiencing the presence of a divine being; I conclude that Jesus loves me and wants me to go and be a missionary. Richard Dawkins may reasonably accept that I felt those things; deny that I felt the presence of a divine being; deny in particular that I learned that Jesus wants me to be a missionary. And the difficulty is that if you ask me in either of these cases to say what my experience was then -- quite aside from the possibility that it may have been somewhat indesc
2lisper5yOh, sorry, my mistake. I wouldn't say that. I would say, "I believe that you think you saw the ghost of your dead grandmother. And it's not entirely out of the question that it was in fact the ghost of your dead grandmother. But I think it's more likely that there's some other explanation." And actually, I probably wouldn't even say that. I would probably say, "I'm sorry your grandmother is dead. She must have meant a lot to you." "Obligation" is an odd word to use here. If you believe that having a more complete model and accurate model of the world [] is a good thing, then it seems to me that it follows logically that having a better model of why some people believe the things they do is a good thing. Does that constitute an "obligation"? I don't know, but I don't want to quibble over terminology []. If prayer's to a particular god were answered more often than prayers to some other god, that would be pretty convincing evidence (at least to me) that that god existed and the others didn't. Many religious claims are in fact falsifiable (and falsified) theories. Oh, yes, of course. I'm not suggesting that we disarm against the fundamentalist wackos. What I'm suggesting is that some people who profess to believe in God are actually our (non-believers) intellectual allies in many other matters, and so having a better theory of how that happens (or, at the very least, employing less inflammatory rhetoric towards them) might make the world a better place for everyone. That's all.
0gjm5ySorry, I wasn't clear enough: the "you" and "I" there were so called just for convenience. I wouldn't say the things "I" say in that paragraph, either. (And, for the avoidance of doubt, I agree that both the answers you say you might give are better than a flat "No, you didn't". Of course.) Well, the whole point of what you've been saying here seems to be that skeptics who argue against religious beliefs are (or at least many of them are) doing something wrong, that instead of arguing over religious beliefs they should be empathizing with religious experiences or something like that. I agree that understanding things is better than not understanding them. But understanding any specific thing is not always a high priority. Of course. Perhaps I was unclear: I didn't mean "nothing that could possibly happen would constitute strong evidence", I meant "no purely internal religious experience would constitute strong evidence". (With the proviso I stated, of course.) In other words, the sort of "experience" that I thought this whole discussion was about. Plenty of people who are not in any useful sense fundamentalist wackos believe that the world was created by a superbeing of vast power and goodness. And while wanting gay people stoned to death is probably in wacko-only territory, there are plenty of non-wackos who want gay people not to be allowed to marry one another for reasons that are ultimately pretty similar to the wackos' reasons. Yup, absolutely true. I don't think this is as little understood as I think you think it is. If all you're saying is that in many contexts it is better not to insist on talking about sky fairies and telling religious people they're crazy -- why, yes, I agree. And, again, my impression is that most people here do too. Although LW is on the whole a pretty unreligious place, there are active members here who are religious believers, and I don't think they get abused for it. And from time to time someone comes along and says, more or
2lisper5yWell, my OP was not written specifically for LW, and it's possible that posting it here was not appropriate, at least not without some significant revisions. If so, I apologize. I'll try to do better next time.
3Dagon5y1) (snarky response) I'm not sure why their lack of imagination should influence my beliefs. 2) (real response) the value of "God" matters a whole lot in this discussion. The bait and switch I worry about is that any personal experience gets used to justify extremely unlikely belief clusters. I don't think someone's hallucinations justifies my rejection of Occam's Razor. I think this is a stretched analogy, but even if I accepted it, nobody who enjoys music is telling me to accept a bunch of other supernatural bullshit.
5lisper5yI'm not suggesting it should influence your beliefs about the world. I'm suggesting it should influence your beliefs about them. This is exactly what I'm talking about. By choosing to call it "supernatural bullshit" rather than "a not altogether unreasonable (though nonetheless mistaken) attempt to account for real subjective experiences that they have had and I have not (and in the absence of education and information that I possess that they might not)" you miss a very important truth: you are dealing with a fellow human being who might be making an honest attempt to make sense of the world in the face of subjective experiences and other background that may be very different from your own. By choosing to label their beliefs "supernatural bullshit" you might be shutting down possible avenues of communication and the opportunity to make the world a better place, even if it is supernatural bullshit.
1Dagon5yI debated with myself about whether to use the inflammatory or reconciliatory framing. It really can go either way, depending on what other parts of the spiritual/supernatural belief cluster is being dragged along with the personal experiences, and what the spriritualist is asking me to accept beyond just "some difficult-to-describe experiences have occurred".
6Viliam5yYou can enjoy the feelings of spirituality, and refrain to base your decisions on them. Just like you can enjoy alcohol without making important decisions while drunk.
0Gleb_Tsipursky5yI like the analogy of alcohol and decision-making! In addition to "Don't Drink and Drive," here's a new slogan "Don't Drink and Decide."
0Matthew_Opitz5yI think that what Viliam was implying was, "Don't Spiritualize and Decide." Don't get drunk on the holy spirit and then make important decisions about what you believe or how you should live your life. I'm pretty sure Viliam was comparing spiritual experiences to alcohol. They might be fun, euphoric, and they might seem meaningful, but do they give good, reliable information about the world that you can use in use in repeated fashion for positive outcomes?
-1Gleb_Tsipursky5yThat would be a nice slogan as well :-)

The reason I want to convince you to entertain this notion is that an awful lot of energy gets wasted by arguing against religious beliefs on logical grounds, pointing out contradictions in the Bible and whatnot.

LessWrong isn't a place that spends a lot of energy on arguing against religious beliefs. I don't think it makes much sense to copy every article from Intentional Insights to this place (even when Gleb isn't doing it himself) if the article is written for a different audience.

Spiritual is a word is a variety of different meanings:

1) Refering t... (read more)

3lisper5yI will take your advice to heart in the future. This was my first post to LW, and was actually a little unsure about how appropriate it was. Now I know.
3solipsist5yEh, don't take it personally. I'm guessing commenters are implicitly taking the title question as a challenge and are pouncing to poke holes in your argument. I thought your essay was well written and thought provoking. Keep posting!
1Gleb_Tsipursky5yFirst, regarding InIn articles. I very much agree that not every article from Intentional Insights should be posted on Less Wrong! That would not be helpful, as most LWs are familiar with the content that InIn popularizes for a broad audience. Only select articles are a good fit, ones that are not obvious and might reveal interesting things to LWs. This, I believe, is one of them. As an active Less Wronger myself, I gained some insights from reading it, for example here [] and other ones as well. I think other LWs might as well, and some of the comments on this post attest to this, I think. Second, regarding the word spiritual. The ten things you listed also have some vagueness to them. For example, what does it mean for things to have meaning? What does it mean to feel connected? What does it meant to have a feeling of sacredness? Communication is hard. It's difficult to translate mentalese into English, especially with vague concepts like "meaning," "connectedness," "sacredness," "spirituality." So while I personally don't prefer the term spiritual myself due to its overuse by religious people, but I am comfortable with other aspiring rationalists using it if that's the term that resonates with them and their experience. Heck, lisper acknowledges it's not the perfect term [], and is open to suggestions for better ones. I think the key is to figure out if the territory we are describing is the same, because the semantics of the mental map are less important than the territory of reality. That would be a very productive conversation, I think.
4ChristianKl5yTabooing vague terms is a key rationality technique. If you want to write an article about spirituality on LW, I think you should start with tabooing the term and explaing what you mean. Once you have done so, I'm fine with you continuing to use the word. Without going through that exercise there a huge danger of being to vague to be wrong. The problem is not that it's the wrong term but that the article doesn't spend effort into trying to clarify what it means with the term. Given that he says that he means "social cohesion" with the term later in this thread, it seems to me like he's not clear what he means with it himself. I haven't spoken about a feeling of sacredness but wanted to refer to sacred values. I mean what the decision science literature means with the term. It operationalized the term. See Emerging sacred values: Iran’s nuclear program [] if you want to know more.
3Gleb_Tsipursky5yAgreed about tabooing being valuable! I certainly hear your point about explaining more about what spirituality means, and I'm glad that the discussion here prompted lisper to clarify that more. Also agreed that the article would have been better if it went into definitions of spirituality more than it did just by comparing it to euphoria. I enjoyed the sacred values piece, thanks for linking it!

Some comments ask what spiritual experience is supposed to be and what kind of perception or altered state of mind it is.

In the spirit of What Universal Human Experiences Are You Missing Without Realizing It I propose a poll for exactly such states of mind. I think indeed we might learn something about parts we may be missing.

OK, I take the list from here:

ADDED: Sorry this is rendered longer than I expected.

ADDED: When answering myself I noticed that some rules for the answers are in order. I suggest this: Never really means never. Seldom means at least ... (read more)

I'm not clear why this is downvoted so much. I think the point it is making ("some people believe in God because they have had first-hand subjective experiences for which the best explanation that they can come up with is that they were caused by God") is not obvious (except likely in hindsight) and the path via analogy and such seem suitable for people who have not had these kinds of experiences. But maybe it does target the wrong audience.

Let's tease that out with a poll:

I have had spiritual experiences [pollid:1101]

Spiritual experiences exist ... (read more)

5lisper5yThanks, Gunnar! Reading the other comments (and watching my karma sink below the threshold for future submissions) I was starting to feel some despair.
1polymathwannabe5yPeople don't come to a rationalist forum to hear about spiritual experiences. The OP should have anticipated that.
0Gleb_Tsipursky5yAgreed, the points this article made were only obvious in hindsight to me.

As people have mentioned, your starting analogy is bad :-/

Otherwise, do you think that replacing "spiritual experiences" with "altered states of mind" throughout your post would change things?

5lisper5yA "spiritual experience" is an altered state of mind, but not all altered states of mind are spiritual experiences. I've gotten a lot of pushback on my use of the word "spiritual", and I am mindful that this word has a lot of irrational baggage associated with it. And I'm open to suggestions, but so far no one has been able to come up with a suitable alternative.
4Lumifer5yCan you define a "spiritual experience", then? What distinguishes it from other kinds of altered state of mind?
0Gunnar_Zarncke5yApparently that isn't easy. -- Measuring Spirituality as a Universal Human Experience: A Review of Spirituality Questionnaires by Eltica de Jager Meezenbroek [] Consequently they And I think the spiritual experience lisper is referring to is the last: Interestingly the hypothesis that people take these experiences as evidence for God is confirmed by the facts:
0Lumifer5yI don't find that useful at all. Let's say I took some magic mushrooms, ran naked around the desert for a while, and experienced certain somethings. On the basis of what would I decide whether my experience was "spiritual" or "not spiritual"?
0[anonymous]5yWell, generally people call things "spiritual" when they do all that other stuff you mentioned, and then think that the resulting states of mind are about the world in some reliable-causal-link sense.
0Gunnar_Zarncke5yIf it is different from other experiences you had? Maybe you could go thru this list and look whether anything looks unknown to you: []
0Lumifer5yYes, sure :-D It certainly qualifies as an "altered state of consciousness". But does it qualify as "spiritual"? How do I decide?
0Gleb_Tsipursky5yMight be helpful to check out the definition of spirituality [] :-)
0Lumifer5yStill not useful. Presumably, lisper, being the author, means something by that word, other than vague handwaving in a vague direction like Wikipedia does.
2lisper5yYeah, I mean something slightly more specific, but still hard to get a linguistic handle on. I mean a kind of subjective experience that can be induced by certain practices (prayer, meditation, walking in the woods...) that manifests as feelings ranging from a kind of euphoric awe to a palpable sense of the presence of supernatural forces. It is distinct from alcohol intoxication, love, lust, the qualia of eating delicious food or listening to music and a host of other things that are part and parcel of the human experience (at least for most humans).
2Lumifer5ySo, going back to my question, how do I decide whether my altered state of consciousness was "spiritual"?
-2lisper5yAnswering that is kind of like trying to tell you how you can decide if you're in love. If it was spiritual, you'll know.
2Lumifer5yThe traditional comparison is to how do you figure out what's porn -- "I can't define it, but I know it when I see it" :-D

my parents sent me to a Christian summer camp

I have (to my shame) been one of the leaders of a Christian summer camp, though possibly a geekier and broader-minded one than your Kentucky one. I guarantee you that when the leaders of the camp you went to declared their belief in God, they did not simply mean that they had had euphoric religious experiences.

4lisper5yOf course, just as when most people say, "The apple is red" they don't simply mean that they had the subjective experience of seeing a red apple. Most people mean that the apple is in fact red. But the reason they believe that the apple is red is because they had the subjective experience of seeing a red apple with their own eyes. Likewise, many people believe in the reality of God because they had a subjective experience that they believe to have been the presence of the holy spirit or something like that.
4gjm5yI think you are equivocating between two claims. One: "When (some) religious people say (some of) what they do about God, they aren't really making statements of fact, they are expressing certain internal experiences that are difficult or impossible to get across more directly." Two: "When (some) religious people say (some of) what they do about God, they are making (what they consider to be) statements of fact, but their belief in those statements is derived from certain internal experiences that are difficult or impossible to get across more directly." Claim One is what would have to be true to justify, e.g., your statement that arguing about religious experiences misses the point because religious talk isn't about logic but about subjective experiences. However, Claim One seems to me to be almost certainly very false as regards most of what most religious people say. Claim Two is probably true of many (though clearly not all) believers. However, "X's claims about God have X's religious experiences as part of their evidence base" is no more reason for not debating those claims than "X's claims about God have X's sacred scriptures as part of their evidence base" or "X's claims about God have certain contentious claims about fundamental physics as part of their evidence base".

There's also some interesting discussion of this piece on the Less Wrong Facebook page here.

0eof-jessica5ypersonal experience which is often motivated by how we interpret our beliefs based on what we have been told or conditioned to think about it should give it merit to convert us or take over our mind or think for us rather then our own mind.

Hello everybody!

Thank you for this post! I enjoyed following the suggested analogy between spirituality and hearing music. I do not, however, totally agree with considering spirituality as "believing in God". I am an atheist and rationalist. Personally, I define spirituality as the endeavour towards discovering oneself and understanding his/her life purpose. For me, spirituality is tightly bound to aiming towards achieving a high-consciousness state. And I believe that along this journey, the person would experience the so-called subjective exper... (read more)

There is a specific emotion which can be induced by some types of trailer, classical and religious music, meditation, long distance running, psychedelics, natural beauty, some types of art and thinking about certain abstract topics (especially consciousness, theoretical physics, pure maths, meta-ethics, economics) - an emotion that might be described as 'cosmic sadness', 'intense euphoria' or 'being profoundly moved'.

It is rational for a hedonist to seek to experience this emotion even though experiencing it often causes irrational beliefs, because it is t... (read more)

Archeological evidence of spirituality goes back tens of thousands of years or maybe more:

My reading of cognitive science suggests to me that spirituality is hard wired, but how that wiring manifests itself varies from person to person. As this discussion points out, listening to music is spiritual for some people. But, for millions of Christian Americans spirituality manifests as a deeply held belief that the bible is to be taken literally and, e.g., the Earth... (read more)

0lisper5yI completely agree that engaging in the debate is worthwhile. But I think you can engage more effectively if you understand how people might come to the opposing point of view.

It seems interesting that a lot of spiritual experiences are something that happens in non-normal situations. To get them people may try denying food or sleep, stay in the same place for a long time without motion, working themselves to exhaustion, eating poisons, going to a place of different atmospheric pressure or do something else they don't normally try to do. The whole process is suspiciously similar to program testing, when you try the program in some situations its creator (evolution in case of humans) haven't "thought" much about. And th... (read more)