How confident is your atheism?

by r_claypool1 min read14th Jun 2012150 comments


Personal Blog

A friend recently asked how strongly I believe that my deconversion from Christianity was not a mistake. Here's my response, and for those of you who are not Christians, I'm just wondering what numbers you would give:

"There is a part of me that wants to say the chance is far less than 1 percent. But when I consider what 1% must mean about my ability to follow complex arguments and base my judgement on the right premises, it seems absurd to say that.

Trying to honestly estimate the chance that I'm wrong about the Bible being generally reliable is a fascinating exercise... I know the number is low, but I'm not sure how low.  

Today I would give myself a 1 in 20 chance of being wrong. If I were to consider the arguments of 20 other groups similar to Christian theologians, I would probably misunderstand them at least 1 time in 20. After talking with 20 groups that have a very different worldview, I might think they are all are mistaken, but once in a while, maybe 5% of the time, it would actually be me.

Wow, 5%!?! If I convert that into "There is a 5% probability that the God of the Bible exists and will send me to hell", I feel scared. But I know how to cheer myself up: I just say, "No way, the chance I'll end up in hell MUST be less than 5%. After all, the God of the Bible is CLEARLY just a big, mean alpha-monkey and... [rehearse all the atheistic arguments here]".

This back-and-forth from certainty to uncertainty makes me feel like I'm doing something seriously wrong.

So what about you? What chance do you place on some variant of Christianity turning up to be true, and what chance do you think a god of some sort exists?"

Numbers please.



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If I were to consider the arguments of 20 other groups similar to Christian theologians, I would probably misunderstand them at least 1 time in 20.

Not all arguments which you misunderstand-and-disbelieve are actually sound.

Today I would give myself a 1 in 20 chance of being wrong. [...] I would probably misunderstand them at least 1 time in 20.

So far so good.

If I convert that into "There is a 5% probability that the God of the Bible exists and will send me to hell"

Don't. That's a mistake. There's a 5% chance (say) that you've seriously misunderstood some of the things that Christian theologians think and why they think them. That's not the same thing -- it's not anything like the same thing -- as a 5% chance that they are right about Christianity and you're going to burn in hell for getting it wrong. It's perfectly possible that both they and you are wrong, and unless your reasons for being an atheist are much worse than I expect that's the most likely state of affairs conditional on your being wrong.

I bet there are a lot more than 20 groups of people with mutually inconsistent beliefs, whose beliefs you have at least a 5% chance of having seriously misunderstood or otherwise failed to refute perfectly.

I am thiiiiiiiiis confident!

(Holds arms wide, then accepts any well-specified bet as if the actual probability of Christianity were zero, i.e., with betting prices corresponding to the probability of the specified evidence being observed, given the fixed assumption that Christianity is false.)

3RichardHughes9yI was literally just about to post a thread asking about the fixation on putting numerical values on our confidences all the time, then I saw this. So, thanks for that. Wrapped that little dilemma right up.
3Logos019yI'm surprised to see this dialogue make so little mention of the material evidence* at hand with regards to the specific claims of Christianity. I mean; a god which was omnipotent and omnibenevolent would surely create a world with less suffering for humanity than what we conjecture an FAI would orchestrate, yes? Color me old-fashioned but I assign the logically** impossible a zero probability (barring of course my being mistaken about logical impossibilities). * s/s// ** s/v/c/
4gwern9ySee Plantinga's free will defense for human and the variant for natural evils; it defuses the logical argument from evil. (Of course it does this by postulating 'free will', whatever that is, but I don't think free will is nearly as clear cut a p=~0 as the existence of evils...)

There are other arguments too, that I haven't seen made in the theology literature. Like, God instantiated all possible universes with net positive utility, because that's more utility than just instantiating the universe with the most utility. This is an extremely basic idea, I really don't know why I haven't seen it before.

8GuySrinivasan9yI've seen this argument but didn't manage to find the paper. It goes further: imagine that the space of possible universes looks like a sphere in R^n centered at the origin and one axis represents a utility function that encodes God's preferences about whether a universe should exist(1) or not and the 0 on the axis is just where God's preferences switch from "would rather exist than not" to "would rather not exist"(2). Then the vast majority of universes that God instantiates are just barely worth existing, and you should expect to find yourself in a universe where the problem of evil is not resolved by "actually things are pretty great, good job God!" or by "we live in a hell dimension, God is the worst". (1) Assume "should exist" makes sense. I realize none of us knows what this means. (2) Luckily? For an underlying reason? Anyway it's one plausible shape, more likely than any specific squiggly blob, and the argument works for lots of other shapes like a cone with its point in the +util direction.
4gwern9yI've seen that before; somewhere in Luke's collection of papers dealing with the FWD.
2Will_Newsome9yOkay, that's good to know. It's only somewhat related, but do you know of any good rebuttals to Plantinga's evolutionary argument against naturalism? I find his argument really quite clever. I couldn't immediately think up a refutation, but I haven't looked at the literature.
7gwern9yIt's been a while since I was reading about it, but my reaction was bullet-biting: "Sure. Does anyone actually think our faculties are perfectly reliable? I sure don't, and I'd nominate religion itself as a perfect example of how evolution-molded psychologies can go horribly epistemologically wrong."
0Viliam_Bur9yWhat exactly is the "net positive utility"? Where exactly is the zero? For example if we assume that existing is always better than not existing, then all existing universes automatically have net positive utility. If we assume a Christian model where people will get most of their utility in afterlife, this model would put a limit on Heaven : Hell population ratio. The exact numbers would depend on how many people in Heaven plus how many people in Hell give a total zero utility. For example assuming that positive utility of one person in Heaven is greater in absolute value than negative utility of all people in Hell, this model would say that all worlds where at least one person gets to Heaven will be instantiated. Assuming this, the exceptionality of Jesus in our universe is an evidence for all other people going to Hell. (Just joking. With proper definitions and priors you can prove anything.)
-2Logos019yAn omnipotent omnibenevolent being would have no need for such "shorthand" tricks to create infinite worlds without suffering. Yes you could always raise another aleph level for greater infinities; but only by introducing suffering at all. Which violates omnibenevolence.
6Logos019yI don't buy it. A superhuman intelligence with unlimited power and infinite planning time and resources could create a world without suffering even without violating free will. And yet we have cancer and people raping children.
2gwern9yOh, it did try. Unfortunately, Adam exercised his free will in the wrong way. Better luck next universe.
3Viliam_Bur9yPerhaps betting huge amounts of other people's suffering on Adam's ability to resist eating an apple was a really stupid idea.
-1Logos019y"If it weren't for my horse, I never would've graduated college." >_<
3CarlShulman9yPlus the dubious moral view that the seemingly incoherent variety of free will is of immense axiological importance.
0Unknowns7yThis calls into question your claim that you won't accept bets that would call into question your ability to pay if you lose. What do think is the probability (given the fixed assumption that Christianity is false) that sometime before 2045 you will have the psychological experience of a vision of Christ claiming to be risen from the dead?
1Eliezer Yudkowsky7yPreeeeeeeeeeeetty small, and I nonetheless won't accept any bets that I couldn't pay off if I lost, because that's deontologically dishonorable.
-4private_messaging9ywow awesome way to put it. I feel same way about a lot of stuff like that.

So, first off, I would agree that you're doing something seriously wrong, and what you're doing wrong is you're privileging the hypothesis.

Consider P1: "The God of the Bible exists and will send me to Hell."
Now consider P2: "There is a God, but the Bible is systematically wrong about God's plan. Everything the Bible says God wants, God actually wants the opposite of, and if I follow the Bible God will send me to Hell."

Regardless of how small or large a value I assign to p(P1), what really matters for my decision-making is p(P1)/p(p2). If that ratio is close to 1, then I ought not treat the Bible as my guide to how to act, regardless of either value. P1 could have a 50% chance of being true, and it still wouldn't matter.

That having been said, OK.
First off, like Emile, I have trouble unambiguously interpreting "Christianity is true."

Call C1 the set of all statements asserted by any Christian-identified theologian.

My confidence that the conjunction of C1 is false is roughly equal to my confidence that (a) I can in fact recognize logical contradictions and (b) two propositions that contradict one another are not both true. I don't know how to attach a n... (read more)

How is this one chance out of twenty specific of Christianity? This doesn't seem to have any good predictive power. You can misunderstand the arguments of one out of twenty groups for any topic. Why not worry about all these other topics as well?

From Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow (p 325):

The probability of a rare event is most likely to be overestimated when the alternative is not fully specified... [Researcher Craig Fox] asked [participants] to estimate the probability that each of the eight participating teams would win the playoff; the victory of each team in turn was the focal event.

... The result: the probability judgments generated sucessively for the eight teams added up to 240%!

Do you (r_claypool) have reason to suspect that Christianity is much more likely to be true than other, (almost-) mutually exclusive supernatural worldviews like, say, Old Norse Paganism? If not, then 5% for Christianity is absurdly high.

0r_claypool9yNo, I've read way more Christian apologetics than I care to admit, and the basic tenants of the Bible like -- "God could find no better way to forgive humans than to have one tortured on a cross" -- are no more substantiated by apologists than whatever is part of Old Norse Paganism. But it still doesn't feel absurdly high.
3shminux9yHave you tried tracing your reasoning that leads to this feeling, step-by-step, and see which step bumps the odds to 5%? For a programmer, the analogy would be "the output of this code is 5%, which is suspiciously high, let's trace the program with a debugger and see which instruction is responsible". More often than not, you find that there is a path through your code that you haven't thought of before, or a step that seemed innocuous enough has a different effect from what you expected. Another standard technique is to work backwards from the final answer and see where it comes from.
1duckduckMOO9yit might not feel absurdly high because absuridty is often a heuristic about what should be laughed at rather than what is unlikely. When people say something is absurd they mean it should be laughed at along with its claimer. 5% is a "respectable" estimate except perhaps in some very untheist countries. (I don't know and am too lazy to look it up is why I am saying perhaps, not because I know and want to make the fact seem small.) The other difference I see between old norse paganism and religion is that there are all sorts of people who don't otherwise appear to be crazy who say christianity is true and you can't properly internalise the idea that they are all wrong/lying. Oh and this just occured to me. It could be you are sort of/on some level afraid of hell. You may have had the idea of someone being wrong, in contravention to" popular wisdom raised to your attention and be unconciously avoiding conclusions that leave you in that scenario especially when the punishment for being wrong is hell. The question that stopped me thinking christianity, while unlikely, was unlikelier than the other religions was was: If you were raised by old norse pagan/aztec/muslim/hindu parents in an old norse pagan/etc place do you think you would have a higher instinctive estimate of its probability? Another thing to consider is that the people telling you that Jesus is a resurrected God say all kinds of other stupid stuff which is probably untrue (so p(christianity in general) is low for that reason and the probability that Jesus is a resurrected God goes way down if christianity is not true otherwise. Also, christians are in fact, on further inspection, generally visibly crazy, for a relevantly/appropriately strict definition of sane and present as their evidence a book that it has somehow become doctrine is God's word despite being tampered with by humans all the time.

While ordinarily, I might upvote something that is asking for help calibrating a belief, I think this has far too much potential to turn into an "I'm more atheist than you" fest. Especially when the title is "How confident is your atheism?" After reading a couple of the comments, I had that urge until I realized what was happening.

So I will be explicitly ignoring your request for numbers. But if you're really dead set on coming up with a number for yourself (I don't think the discussion is productive enough beyond estimation to, say, three or four orders of magnitude accuracy, but your call) I would suggest trying to think of other beliefs that you find as plausible as Christianity, ie., all of the other religions. You've got to necessarily have room for them in your estimation. Also, you should take into account reasons that creatures evolving in the ancestral environment would become religious.

(I upvoted this post because I saw that its score was at -1. I normally avoid doing this, but here I make an exception because, while this is not a quality article, I think this sort of thing should be encouraged here on Less Wrong, the sort of "I have a doubt and I want to know about to do about it" posts that this is an example of.


This back-and-forth from certainty to uncertainty makes me feel like I'm doing something seriously wrong.

took at least some courage. Let us not punish that. On the other hand I do feel like this is more appropriate for the open threads, but nobody checks them the week before a new one anyway.)

Do you really think there's a 40% chance that one out of the Bahá'í, Christians, Jews, Mandaeans, Muslims, Sikhs, theistic Hindus, or Zoroastrians are right?

Or do you think maybe there's a 5% chance that some form of religion is right, and that there might be a sub-chance of that that theism is right, and then there's a sub-sub-chance of any of the particular living theisms I just listed is right?

7Manfred9yNeither, I'd guess. The 5% is a number that sounds disbelieving but open-minded.
2r_claypool9yThat's about right. Five percent was basically a buffer for, "I don't have full confidence in my epistemology, maybe I'm confused and Christian faith actually is a virtue." But I get what everyone has said about privileging the hypothesis []. If by faith I'm supposed to choose a religion, after choosing I'd have no answer for, "Why did you trust in those unverifiable claims as opposed to some other unverifiable claims?" This would be true of all religions and supernatural claims, or at least the ones I'm aware of.

Depends on what you mean by "Christianity being true". If you mean "The miracles described in the Bible actually happened in the real world, and there is a supernatural God that cares about our actions and occasionally interferes in the world", then the chances are vanishingly small, less than one in a million.

On the other hand, if you mean "Following religious practice and giving priests a respectable position in society is good for individual well-being, as well as maintaining a harmonious and prosperous society; religious teachings are moral fables that help foster group coordination", then yeah, I'd put a much higher probability to that, though the exact value would depend of the religion being considered, etc.

I probably should have clarified to say, "the chance that Jesus of Nazareth is a resurrected God." I think all modern Christianities have this belief in common, and my estimations are based on this lowest common denominator.

2Emile9yThey may all profess that belief, but is it the real reason they're Christians and not atheists? What if metaphysical claims are just identity markers, that Christians hold because they are completely abstract and divorced from reality? The "religion is good for social and individual well-being" argument is a bit of a steel man []; it's easy to make fun of stupid arguments by Christians, but maybe Christianity is actually beneficial for complicated reasons, and many Christians see the benefits but mistakenly believe in simpler reasons (and those that can articulate complex reasons are ignored, because complex explanations are boring and look like tortuous rationalizations). The important question shouldn't be "is such-and-such point of Christian doctrine factually true?", but rather, "is it better for me and society that I identify as an atheist rather than as a Christian?" . Reducing the second question to the first is a cheap way out. Sure, there are good arguments for why secularism is better than religion, but those are waaay less overwhelming than the arguments of physics and biology (and frickin' common sense) over theology.
2TheOtherDave9yWhich is a special case of "What falsehoods should I prefer to believe to their corresponding truths?", which is a far broader question.
0Emile9yIdentifying as a Christian isn't believing a falsehood, but it does give an incentive to believe certain falshehoods. See here [] for talk of unbelieving pastors: (I want to make it clear that the argument I'm describing isn't "believe in pleasant lies if it makes you good and happy")
0TheOtherDave9yAh, I see. Thanks for the clarification, I had indeed misunderstood. The important question might instead be "what is it best for me to identify as?" ...where "best for me" and "best for society" and "best for me and society" are three different interpretations of that question, and which one I pick depends on how important I think I am relative to society, and where "identify as atheist" and "identify as Christian" are two of a near-infinite number of choices.

How has nobody yet mentioned Confidence Levels Inside and Outside an Argument? Anyway, I take gjm's line on this: I should assign at least 5% probability that my reasoning for rejecting Christianity is invalid in some way that I'm unaware of, but that's different from a 5% probability that Christianity is true.

For one thing, my reasoning that Christianity is very likely false is essentially the same as my reasoning that other theisms are false, so at the very least a whole bunch of other religions get lumped into that same 5%. (That is, if Zeus exists, then my reasoning was just as wrong as if Yahweh exists.) Furthermore, there are other possibilities—such as that I'm mentally unbalanced and hallucinating my high intelligence, or that I'm a brain in a vat whose reasoning is being systematically tweaked for a mad scientific experiment—which don't seem all that correlated with whether Christianity is true or not.

Since in my case as well as yours, Christianity plays a unique role vis-a-vis other theisms, there is some justification for promoting it a bit within the space of "things that might actually be the case if my reasoning is bad" (in the same sense that a lottery winn... (read more)

3Viliam_Bur9yI didn't write it explicitly, but my 99% answer [] was based on reasoning like: there is a 1% chance that my way of reasoning is invalid because of something I am not aware of. That means, instead of 1% chance meeting Zeus, I estimate a 1% chance of some argument that could change my reasoning about the subject. In other words, it's not 1% chance that I am wrong about this, but rather 1% chance I am irrational about this.

After all, the God of the Bible is CLEARLY just a big, mean alpha-monkey and...

Is a mean God that much less likely than a benevolent God?

7JenniferRM9yThis is a good point in some sense, but you get into the "tricksy" side of the ontological argument [] with it. Suppose you are comparing the belief that a particular supernatural entity exists to whom various miracles and plans and worldly outcomes are being attributed, call this entity X. Now compare that to a hypothetically defined entity who is perfect in every conceivable way, maxing out all notional "awesome traits" as much as is logically possible, and call whatever this definition captures Y. One of the traits of Y is that "it exists" because it would be a paltry perfect being who was simply imaginary :-P If it is obvious from trivial inspection that X != Y, and Y would have the power and inclination to forbid the existence of X or curtail its plans such that the various world outcomes couldn't have been caused by something like X, then X, as stipulated based on certain worldy facts, must not exist. Someone interested in particular worldly outcomes, like the banning of condoms or the forbidding of women from eating bananas (to take two random examples), might claim that the hypothetical X connected to these worldly issues is Y to dodge this conclusion and buttress their worldly interests. To me, this technique seems like a potential insult to Y and thus, in some abstract sense (logically conditional on Y's actually existing in some form or another, and objecting to people being dumb about it, and the worldly issues ascribed to Y actually being dumb) it might even be a form of blasphemy. A lot depends on how you hug the question [] when unpacking pre-existing poetically expressed claims into expectations for practical consideration, discussion, and nominal truth evaluation.
3Will_Newsome9y(AFAIK discerning the relationship or lack thereof between possible Xes and Y is called discernment, e.g. discernment of spirits, or sometimes paracletics. That said, I haven't been very impressed with the stuff I've found. I'm really intrigued by Plantinga's idea of a defeater-defeater, but I have no freakin' idea how something like that would work in practice. Or at least, I don't see how you could get the certainty that Plantinga seems to think is possible. I personally have never had an experience that I felt could not possibly have come from anywhere except God. ...Phenomenology is hard, let's go shopping.)
0DanielLC9ySo, you're saying that it shows that that particular proof of God is flawed?

What chance do you place on some variant of Christianity turning up to be true, and what chance do you think a god of some sort exists?

Not-quite-numbers: specifically Christianity: at a noise level (i.e. same as pastafarianism). Some kind of omniscience/omnipotence, including being in a matrix-like simulation: somewhat above the noise level, but not high enough to change anything I do or worry about.

1Eugine_Nier9yChristianity has a much more coherent theology than pastafarianism.

Christianity has a much more coherent theology than pastafarianism.

Christianity loses me at "God sacrificed his only begotten son to save the world". Omnipotent God had to sacrifice? Omnipotent God had to impregnate a mortal woman to produce a god-child? What is he, Zeus? Save his own world from whom? Why such a circuitous route? I'm sure all these questions have a perfectly reasonable answer to a Christian, but it is silly to argue that the whole thing is coherent in any objective sense.

9Nornagest9yJust to play advocatus dei for a moment, most of the above makes a lot more sense to me in the context of a God trying to reconcile his perspective with that of a set of mortals with whom he shares a preexisting special relationship and set of behavioral rules but whose psychology he doesn't fully understand. Seen in this light, the whole New Testament story starts to look like self-modification on God's part in service to a package of, essentially, legal reforms designed to relax the fairly brutal and self-limiting Old Testament rules. I'm not a theist, though, and from a Christian perspective a lot of this is rank heresy: it's compatible with functional omnipotence but requires only limited omniscience, for example, and it's flatly inconsistent with a lot of trinitarian perspectives. Still, that's about as best I can make sense of the mythology without falling back on "mysterious ways". Similarly, a theistic friend of mine likes to describe God in terms of a frustrated roleplaying GM who's fed up with trying to keep his players from going off the rails; Jesus in this metaphor could be thought of as a GM-run character joining the campaign for a session or two in order to capture the experience from a player perspective and maybe point the story in a less disastrous direction. Not necessarily a great idea, but it beats "rocks fall, everybody dies".
3Will_Newsome9yIt's more of a Jewish thing, but I find apologetics becomes a lot easier when I recall that God has a (trollish) sense of humor. Imagine Christians taking Christianity super seriously, and atheists getting all sneering and masturbatory about how the plot seems to be totally incoherent, and everything gets all heated, and in the background God's just going "trolololololol". By hypothesis He trolls you because He loves you—recall that Socrates and the Buddha also tended towards trollishness, mostly as a didactic method. Also relevant is that saints and members of Christian monasteries often tended to flout societal norms, and that an emphasis on the "foolishness" of Christian doctrine has been around since at least Paul: "For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe." This book about psi and "the trickster" [] is relevant. Muflax recently wrote a blog post on gods and trolling [].
-3Fill_Cluesome9yIt all makes sense now!
2shminux9y...And then giving up after the plot backfires?
-2BlazeOrangeDeer9yI don't think any modern christianity would agree that god could seriously misunderstand human psychology as you say.
2hairyfigment9yWhat do you mean? Google tells me the school of open theism [], which includes "one of the twenty most influential Christian scholars alive today," would likely allow for this possibility. Given that some self-described Christian denominations don't seem to require belief in God, it would surprise me greatly if none of them allowed God to learn on this scale. Though as I said before, I think I could make the source material of Pastafarianism as consistent with itself and observations as any school of theology has made the Christian Bible.
3hairyfigment9yWhich of the many exclusive theologies do you mean? And what will you give me if I can make pastafarianism at least equally coherent? ^_^
5Eugine_Nier9yHow about Thomism []? Let's just say I'd be really surprised if you can do this.
-2hairyfigment9yAre we both talking about logical consistency of the theory with itself and observations? (You know about self-hating number theory, how it shows that truth doesn't enter into this?) Or do you mean to include some aesthetically consistent style that you perceive in Thomism but not Pastafarianism? (In that case, your aesthetic preference is wrong.) If one of those is right, are you willing to put $500 against $50? I'd need you to tell me all the questions and problems you think Pastafarianism should address. I'd also want up to one month per issue.
-3Eugine_Nier9yI'm talking about logical consistency with itself and observation as well as with itself on a meta-level. So you admit that it's possible for aesthetic preferences to be wrong. I can't make bets involving money as that would break my pseudonymity. Also, who would judge?
9Will_Newsome9yDude says he can construct a Pastafarian theology better than Thomism in one month, gets upvoted, dude who expresses doubt of this gets downvoted. LW is completely batshit insane sometimes. (From a strictly epistemic standpoint anyway. Politically speaking I'm sure blindly shouting "boo God yay science" is a reasonable strategy.)
4hairyfigment7yI'd forgotten that mass-downvoter and sockpuppeteer Eugine Nier was the one who refused this bet. (Of course he wants to keep his anonymity!) I'd also mostly forgotten that you defended his nonsense. In retrospect, you encouraged him to try and drive me away from the site. Note that I was totally correct, and the two of you were totally wrong. There is nothing special about the Bible that prevents me from just taking all the dishonest tricks used by Thomism to defend it, and applying them to Pastafarianism. In fact, a religion that praises pirates is a more natural fit for the theology originally written by Aristotle (tutor of famed pirate/emperor Alexander).
-4Will_Newsome7yhahahaha haaaaaaaaaaaahahahahaha
3hairyfigment9yAh, well. Just for the sake of clarity, do you think it contradicts facts about the 'natural' meaning of "natural law" -- about the rules that every smart human (or suitably extrapolated human) who cares about "being provident for itself and for others," would agree with? Certainly if we assumed no such rules exist, that would contradict the 'natural' reading. Thomism does feel self-consistent to me if I assume that every law comes from a medieval ruler or similar source. Now assume instead that pirates are divine beings. I'm thinking here of John "I Wanna Be a Pirate" Rackham, Anne Bonny, and Mary "Totally a Man" Read. See also "Kenpachi". That was also a joke? I do think you'd change your positive opinion of Thomism (v Pastafarianism) if you looked at all aspects of the situation.

You seem to be reasoning as if Christianity has a prior high enough to make it worth considering, then basing your atheism on having heard and invalidated the Christians' arguments. Instead, consider that Christianity is a huge, complex hypothesis with a very low prior, and then update down based on seeing the arguments for it and finding them bad. You can do that because if Christianity were true you'd be more likely to see good arguments, and if it's false you're more likely to see bad arguments.

Each individual religion starts off with a prior low enoug... (read more)

Given what we know about the ways that religions start and spread, we know that they are not generally truth-tracking. The fact that we observe a particular religious belief in the populace (or that we happen to have been born to a family that teaches it) is not a good indicator of that belief being true. Religious beliefs — unlike practical (how-to) knowledge or scientific theories — are not selected for their accuracy.

Further, the various religions contradict one another on pretty much everything (except baseline tribal morality): if Christian theology i... (read more)

I'm thinking there is a false dichotomy here. If Christianity is false it doesn't mean that atheism is true. Both Christianity and atheism could be false. Christianity being true only depends on the resurrection of Jesus, and that depends on how regularly dead bodies come back from the dead, how many stories we have about dead bodies coming back from the dead, and how many times we have had verified stories of dead bodies coming back from the dead.

There are certainly Jews who think that the events in the NT generally happened (e.g. Toledot Yeshu), Muslims... (read more)

5r_claypool9yYeah, it was a false dichotomy. I see that now.

I watched the Ten Commandments the other day to revisit some classic cinema, and in the scene where god appears as a burning bush, I couldn't help but think, "Wow, that's all he could muster?" And then picture some outer-universe aliens tinkering with gigantic equipment with immense power inputs to try and interfere in some other world, only able to project tiny amounts of fire into a bush and a disembodied voice, the best efforts of all their minds at cross-dimensional communication resulting in nothing much at all, and the translator broken at that.

2wedrifid9yOne time! [] One time I did that!
0Eugine_Nier9yNot necessarily, depends on what His goal was.


The feelings you get about this number are feelings that most any belief system would produce - you'd say the same thing with the same 5% if we replaced Christianity with Catholicism, for example.

So I take all beliefs systems as the reference class for that feeling. Smear that 5% over all belief systems - not just the ones that exist, but the possible ones that are as coherent and likely to arise as Christianity - and you should stop worrying somewhat.

After talking with 20 groups that have a very different worldview, I might think they are all are m

... (read more)
0thomblake9yTo provide a more concrete mechanism for what you suggest: 5% is clearly a non-normalized probability. You can add up all those 5%'s, as well as whatever probability you'd apply to atheism, and then divide 5% by that sum. You now have a normalized probability that fits into a proper distribution.
2shokwave9yYes, this is a much clearer and more applicable technique.

Christianity isn't a single proposition though. There is a lot of content there. A lot of unverified content.

The probability that you should believe Christianity because of some fear of hell (act on your worry) is something less than the probability that there is a God times the probability that God had a son given that there is a God times the probability that Jesus was the one and only son of God given that God had a son times the probability that there are souls given all of the above times the probability that God sends these souls somewhere GAOTA time... (read more)

0thomblake9yI know you were speaking loosely, but you can't just multiply probabilities when they're not made independent.
0asparisi9yThat's false. Let's say that we have 3 sets of propositions, A, B, and C. A is 40% likely. B is 90% likely if A is the case and 1% likely if A is not the case. C is 10% likely if B is not the case, 50% likely if A and B are both true, and 5% likely if B is true but A isn't. B and C are clearly dependent variables. Nevertheless, simple math tells us that C is 8.17% likely, all other things being equal. Since Christianity is only true if all of the relevent propositions are true (as opposed to the scenario above) you can just multiply the probabilities together. (Unlike our A, B, C scenario, which also required some amount of addition.) You just multiply the probability within the conditional: that if God has a son that his one and only son is Jesus, rather than simply the probability that Jesus existed or that Jesus was the son of God. If Christianity could be true without Jesus being the one son of God, then addition would be required along with the multiplication, but this is not the case as the belief "Christianity" implies a zero-probability for these scenarios.
1thomblake9yI somehow didn't notice the "given all of the above" shorthand.

For me, there are the odds that "God" exists and there are the odds that I can ever fully shake the conditioning and indoctrination of my childhood, such that a charismatic, confident, person could ever get me to hesitate or win some sort of personal "victory" in a fact to face confrontation.

The former is zero, the latter is somewhat higher.

-2DanielLC9yExactly zero [], or just epsilon?
0stcredzero9yI can answer your question with a certainty higher than either of those.

What chance do you place on some variant of Christianity turning up to be true, and what chance do you think a god of some sort exists?"

Both a bit vague - but maybe 0.1% and 5%, respectively.

"There is a part of me that wants to say the chance is far less than 1 percent. But when I consider what 1% must mean about my ability to follow complex arguments and base my judgement on the right premises, it seems absurd to say that.

This argument is clearly fallacious, given that we all have things we assign a chace of <<<1% to, regardless of our ability to evaluate arguments. See: story of Joseph Smith and the golden plates, fairies, Xenu, Flying Spaghetti Monster, etc.

And if you go on the omni- definiton of God, my confidence in atheism is higher than my confidence in no-fairies because of the problem of evil.

2beriukay9yI agree that stronger statements about gods require tighter probability constraints. Eventually, that runs afoul of logical contradiction, and at that point nothing meaningful can be said about the god in question. But I think you're stomping a bit hard when you say that it is an argument (and hence that it is fallacious).

That some variant of Christianity turns up to be true ? Very, very, very low. Considering the size of the hypothesis space that includes Christianity (it includes about all other religions that ever existed, and most of the fictional ones, and many more you could think about), and the very low amount of evidence, it has to be counted in power of ten. If you consider the core of Christianity to be about 100 bits of information (and that's a very low estimate), and that you have, what, 10 bits of evidence you're left with a probability of 2^-90 of Christiani... (read more)


If I were to consider the arguments of 20 other groups similar to Christian theologians, I would probably misunderstand them at least 1 time in 20.

Just because you misunderstand them, it does not mean they are right. If someone tried to convince me that 2+2=5, and I would have trouble following their complex explanations (but I also wouldn't be able to find an obvious error), I would not accept it as an evidence that 2+2=5. (More precisely, it would be just an epsilon evidence.)

My atheism toward Christian God (or any other) is very like my skepticism toward the Little Red Riding Hood adventure.

The same thing.


5wedrifid9yOr, it is really rather strong evidence but there are all sorts of other evidence (including other people's beliefs) that overwhelm it.
0gjm9yOr, "lots of people believe X" is (when that's all you've got) strong evidence, but it can be broken down into sub-possibilities depending on how they come to believe X, and when you look at that in the case of (say) Christianity it turns out not to be very good evidence after all. (For instance, because most people who believe it turn out to believe it mostly because other people induced them to believe it when they were too young to think it through properly.) (I think the contrary evidence would be plenty strong enough even if "lots of people believe it" were good evidence in this case, but it happens not to be.)
2hairyfigment9y"Some people believe it" counts as evidence. But if you think the spread of Christianity seems likely to happen without any deities (see this possible explanation []) then the vast majority of the people who've professed belief in it do not constitute any additional evidence. Some of those living after their countries dispensed with heresy/blasphemy laws seem like exceptions.
1pragmatist9yThis is compatible with what Thomas said, as long as his prior for the Christian hypothesis is sufficiently lower than that for the Red Riding Hood hypothesis, and that doesn't seem unreasonable given certain construals of the "Christian hypothesis".
4Mitchell_Porter9yWhat's the probability that you're in a simulation? What's the probability that one of the religions in the simulation is a message from the simulator? And is the product of those probabilities really as small as 10^-50?
5hairyfigment9yWhat does God want with a simulation? We could technically reconcile a sim with "Christian God" as normally understood, who does not get his power from clever engineering. But that just brings us back to the point that our world does not look designed, much less designed by a specifically Christian deity.
-3[anonymous]9yMaybe Yaweh is a drunk or a crackhead who just happened to get a hold of some hightech simulation equipment, or perhaps such equipment is common place in his universe? If Many Worlds is true, it HAS to be true just by the fact that every nonzero thing HAS to happen, so why the fuck I was down voted makes no sense.
3Dreaded_Anomaly9yNo. The many worlds interpretation is still restricted by the laws of physics and the available quantum states of interacting wavefunctions. In many worlds, every possible thing happens given the above constraints (with the appropriate measure), but not every "nonzero" thing. There are plenty of "nonzero" things we can imagine that aren't actually possible. See Gell-Mann's principle []: "Everything not forbidden is compulsory." (emphasis added) Further, "true" in a simulation does not actually qualify as true for most religions, given their own stated claims. The conflation of the simulation argument with theism has been previously discussed at length on LW. See, e.g., this comment [] from the very large thread:
3Mitchell_Porter9yDo you have any opinion on whether continuum-many things are possible, or whether there's just a finite or countable number of possibilities?
0Dreaded_Anomaly9yI suspect the nature of quantum mechanics limits the possibilities to the countable regime. Max Tegmark discusses this topic here [], in the section "How many parallel universes are there?".
1Mitchell_Porter9yYou know, perhaps I should apologize for my question, just a little bit; or for the intent behind it. One of my objections to MWI is that it's ill-defined to a degree that laypeople would not guess, from the way that its advocates talk. I noticed on Rolf's thread that you are a physicist, and I thought, OK, I'll see how much this guy has really thought about it... Then it dawned on it me that you were just explicating rather than advocating MWI - that is, explaining a few details of an idea that you know something about because of your profession, but not necessarily an idea that you would champion as The Answer. Nowadays I try to limit my arguing about MWI to discussions with physicists who really believe it. They need to be physicists so that it can be a technical discussion, and they need to be believers so that I can demand answers to specific questions. Most physicists have rigorous justifications for their physical opinions only for those parts of physics that they need professionally, and that usually doesn't extend to "quantum foundations". Most physicists are intrigued or even enthusiastic about that topic, and they'll certainly have opinions and thoughts about it, but when pressed they'll admit to agnosticism, shrug their shoulders, take resort in diffident positivism, etc. When it comes to MWI, you can't have a critical discussion if for the other person it's just a fuzzy opinion, rather than an idea as clear as relativity or a specific equation of motion. I could undoubtedly have a serious debate with someone like Tegmark, because he's very serious about the multiverse concept, and he's written technical works of quantum cosmology which provide a framework for questions like, countable or uncountable, what's the ontological meaning of the measure, how do you avoid a preferred frame, and so on. But the framework is subtly or even radically different for each serious MWI advocate, which is why it's just about impossible to set down a general-purpose
2Dreaded_Anomaly9yYes, this is what I was doing. My personal view is that the many worlds interpretation is probably closer to being correct than other popular (e.g. collapse-based) interpretations. What I mean by this is that it wouldn't surprise me if the "correct" interpretation has not been fully realized by anyone yet, but once it is developed, we will be able to look back and say that many worlds was not as far off. I lean toward the wave function having real physical significance rather than being just a mathematical tool; people said the same thing about quarks, once upon a time. (Many people still think quarks are just a mathematical tool, despite the 17-year-old discovery of the top quark which is too heavy to hadronize before it decays.) As Rolf mentioned [] in his thread, high energy experiment doesn't really deal directly with interpreting quantum mechanics and wave functions. While I'm probably better versed in QM than many physicists whose focus is on classical scales, I would not claim to have a conception of many worlds which is as clear as relativity.
0[anonymous]9yI never said it violated any laws of physics, but within a computer simulation you could easily have a simulated God with the power to change the simulation or people walking on water etc. That's exactly why I said "in simulation". Obviously even if MWI is true that does not makes universes with different laws real. In a simulation you could also make it so that after a person "die" he ends up in a "heaven" or "hell". This is 100% inevitable in Many Worlds
0Dreaded_Anomaly9yYou supported your claim with the statement "every nonzero thing has to happen," which, on its face, ignores the constraint of the laws of physics. You haven't shown that your claim is compatible with the laws of physics as we understand them, and for a claim of "100% inevitability" that burden of proof is on you. The physical possibility of that level of simulation is far from a settled question. And again, even if this claim is true, it doesn't imply or equate to the actual truth of any religion.
-2[anonymous]9yThe statement that "every non-zero thing has to happen" in this context obviously refers to the wavefunction of QM. I am not arguing FOR the simulation hypothesis, but I thought it was generally accepted that simulation is possible... And IF it is, then due to the non-zero of MWI (if MWI IS TRUE) automatically means that these absurd simulations HAS to exist. I never said that this would equate to actual truth of any religion. I am as atheistic as one can possibly be. Obviously these would not be actual Gods in the sense that they are supernatural, but they would be so pragmatically WITHIN this simulation.
1Dreaded_Anomaly9yClearly, that was not obvious to me. There is a common misunderstanding that many worlds implies that "everything is possible," and that statement seemed to match this pattern. It is accepted by many, but it has not been demonstrated to the level where solely postulating many worlds qualifies as an acceptable argument for your point. I am not sure how else I could have been expected to interpret "then all religions has to be true (in a simulation)."
0[anonymous]9yWell, I am sorry for being so sloppy with my answer. But it seems we have cleared it up. Now I would love to see you answer Mitchell_Porters question
2Thomas9yThe simulation implies the Bible God as strongly as it implies the Little Red Riding Hood. How probable is that the naughty wolf is our simulator?
7Mitchell_Porter9yApply this reasoning to a contemporary computer game of quest or combat. In a medieval setting, you might have good guys, bad guys, and extra background characters. Our discussion is like being a character in such a game, trying to guess what it's all about; and your proposition amounts to saying that the intentions and interventions of The Players are just as likely to be centered on the second cow from the right in scene 4, as they are to be centered on one of the obviously major factions of opinion whose struggles define our history and tear our world apart. So no, it ought to be a few orders of magnitude more likely that one (or even all) of those big civilizational blocs on our planet is puppeted by hidden intelligences, than it is likely that a character from a minor French fable is the unique signature-within-the-sim of our creator-artist. I think we can at least agree that our world, and manifest human nature, have the capacity to produce the world's religions, and the histories they have engendered, without any external intervention. So judged according to the absence of obviously beyond-the-world or beyond-the-sim information, in texts like the Bible, the Quran, etc, one should indeed demote the probability that these religions are cosmologically, ontologically, or nonmetaphorically true. But how much demotion of probability, that's the question.
2Thomas9yAre you telling me, that the LRRH is 1000 times less likely the Creator's word to us, than let say the Bible? I don't see a good justification for this. But even if it is, 10^-50 or 10^-53 is all very small. It is deep down somewhere, near the zero.
-3Eugine_Nier9yThe big bad wolf, as described in the story, doesn't have the ability to create a stimulation (or do any programing whatsoever), whereas God, as described in the bible, does.
3Thomas9yOh no. The story deliberately hides the Wolf's powers. THAT is not very unlikely compared to the rest, is it?
-3[anonymous]9yCoincidentially I was pondering this very question a few weeks ago. If many worlds interpretation is true, then all religions has to be true (in a simulation)
0BlazeOrangeDeer9yMost religions make metaphysical claims which contradict mwi.

Today I would give myself a 1 in 20 chance of being wrong. If I were to consider the arguments of 20 other groups similar to Christian theologians, I would probably misunderstand them at least 1 time in 20. After talking with 20 groups that have a very different worldview, I might think they are all are mistaken, but once in a while, maybe 5% of the time, it would actually be me.

Wow, 5%!?! If I convert that into "There is a 5% probability that the God of the Bible exists and will send me to hell", I feel scared. But I know how to cheer myself up

... (read more)

Jaynes discusses Hempel's Paradox on pages 143 to 144 of Probability Theory: the Logic of Science. I take away a broad lesson: one must always know what alternative hypotheses are available. Failing to be clear about your alternative hypotheses is my first candidate for what you are doing wrong.

My second candidate comes from rule IIIb for plausible reasoning (page 9).

... always take into account all the evidence relevant to the question ...

One conspicuous feature of the world is the presence of rival faiths, each well attested by miracles about which ... (read more)

I suppose that the existence of something resembling a god is possible if we are actually living in a simulation. Even the christian god would be somewhere in that space of possibilities, though given the space of possibilities, that one specific possibility would still have to have extraordinarily low probability.

But let's say the christian god shows up on our world one day and says "hey all, yup, I'm totally real, now get on your knees and praise me or suffer eternal torment!"

I don't know about anybody else, but my atheism wouldn't so much as w... (read more)

[-][anonymous]9y 0

This post belongs in Discussion.

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The bible is not internally consistent, therefore it is impossible for it to accurately describe a coherent deity. The question is nonsensical on its face. You have to instead start picking and choosing which parts of the bible to believe and which parts to ignore (or trust someone else do to that for you), which is why we have tens of thousands of varieties of christianity.

So you must return to the fundamental question of rationality: what do I think I know, and how do I think I know it? Or more specifically - what is your criteria for deciding that part... (read more)

Today I would give myself a 1 in 20 chance of being wrong. If I were to consider the arguments of 20 other groups similar to Christian theologians

There actually are more than 20 religious groups out there. Do you think you are wrong about one of them being the true religion?

There are a lot of different gods. If you have 5% for any single God existing, I don't think you are an atheist.

For me P(A god punishes people for not believing in the Bible with eternal hell | A god exists) is less than 5%.

The ridiculousness of an eternal loving god who punishes no... (read more)

r_claypool retooled the question as: "the chance that Jesus of Nazareth is a resurrected God". Like most on this thread, I can't come up with a number aside from "exceedingly improbable".

Kudos to TheOtherDave for an excellent comment.

IMHO, Kierkegaard nailed it when he observed that faith in Christianity is imcompatible with reason. While the latest flavour du jour for Christian apologists in support of the truth of the resurrection is the minimalist three facts approach (i.e. death of the cross, empty tomb and reports of post-resurrection appreances), most will back peddle when asked whether they accept all of the other miraculous reports contained in the New Testament.

0[anonymous]7y‘Leap of faith – yes, but only after reflection’ -Kierkegaard

Other people have pointed out the problems with singling out Christianity and ignoring a lot of disjoint possibilities. As to your question, someone on another site named a level of evidence that feels like it would make me consider deities as explanations. Representatives of a deity (or the deity itself) would need to publicly create specimens of a species believed extinct. They would need skeptical observers, well-versed in stage magic, to declare themselves baffled. And then they'd have to hand the specimens over to skeptical biologists for another kind... (read more)

I'll try to assign probabilities to 5 propositions:

(A) I'm deluded, insane and unaware of this

0.03% of the population (that's 3 people in every 10,000) have Delusional Disorder. If I did have that (or various other disorders) I would be as certain as I am now that I was sane, so that puts an upper limit on how confident anyone can rationally be about their own sanity.

(B) I'm sane, but some form of supernatural exists (whether that's ghosts, an afterlife, supernatural karma, magic spells, or a sentient Gaia)

Given how hard science has looked for such thing... (read more)

Note: It mangled my footnote symbols. Simply go in order of appearance if you wish to find them.

As a strong agnostic, I must say I find the numbers given here amusing. Simply put, there is very little evidence either way, and it is highly likely that it is IMPOSSIBLE to have decent evidence either way about an omnipotent god. I believe that there is an infinitesimal possibility that there is any significant way to tell which way you should lean.* Therefore, I find these probabilities meaningless (but not uninteresting).

Now, probabilities on whether or not ... (read more)

"Probability of Christianity" is way too vague, so I can't answer that. I'm 50% confident in my philosophical (meta-ethical, decision theoretic, cosmological) theism, 92.5% confident in my phenomenal-belief-in-decisions-relevant-transhumanly-intelligent-entities. My confidence in atheism is some weird mixture of the inverse of those two because those two variants of theism strike me as pretty disjunctive, and either would falsify atheism. These are impression-belief mixtures: not entirely Aumann-adjusted, but a little. My impressions are more confident of theism, but my betting odds are less confident.

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-3Will_Newsome9yRetracted the above because I don't really like Bayes for this sort of thing. If we had better decision theory and game theory then I would have the tools to answer.

I think pinning a probability number on this (outside of context of being forced to gamble or otherwise forced into making a decision dependent on probability of this) is simply innumerate. Suppose you attach a number to it. Then there's a situation where it is too high (Pascal's wager) and possible situations where it is too low (we discover that incredibly simple laws, simpler than laws of physics, lead to emergence of singleton intelligence that proceeds to simulate universes with life, and then you start rejecting Occam's razor because you were too atheist)

[+][anonymous]9y -5