Special Status Needs Special Support

by Eliezer Yudkowsky1 min read4th May 200975 comments


Affect HeuristicSocial & Cultural Dynamics
Personal Blog

I just recorded another BHTV with Adam Frank, though it's not out yet, and I had a thought that seems worth recording.  At a certain point in the dialogue, Adam Frank was praising the wisdom and poetry in religion.  I retorted, "Tolkien's got great poetry, and some parts that are wise and some that are unwise; but you don't see people wearing little rings around their neck in memory of Frodo."

(I don't remember whether this observation is original to me, so if anyone knows a prior source for this exact wording, please comment it!)

The general structure of this critique is that Frank wants to assign a special status to the Book of Job, but he gives a reason that would be equally applicable to The Lord of the Rings (good poetry and some wise parts).  So if those are his real reasons, he should feel just the same way about God and Gandalf.  Or if not that exact particular book, then some other work of poetic fiction that was always understood to be poetic fiction.

Later on I did demand of Adam Frank to say whether he thought the Book of Job ought to be assigned any different status from The Merchant of Venice, and Frank did reply "No".  I'm not sure that he lives up to this reply, frankly.  I strongly suspect he grants the two works a different emotional status.  One is widely revered as Sacred Religious Truth while the other is merely a Great Work of Literature.  Frank, while not a religious believer himself, does have different modes of thought for Sacred Truth and Great Literature and he knows that Job is supposed to be Sacred Truth.

When I challenged the sacredness of the Book of Job, Frank reacted by trying to praise Job's "great poetry", which positive affect then seems to justify the positive-affect sacred status via the affect heuristic / halo effect.  But "great poetry" would apply to Tolkien as well; and yet if you talked about Tolkien the way that Frank talked about Job, most people would write you down as a hopeless fanboy/fangirl...

So the general form of the bias that I'm critiquing is to try and justify a special positive (negative) status by pointing to positive (negative) attributes, saying, "Therefore I can assign it this very positive status!", but the same attributes belong to many other works that you don't grant the special positive status.

Other places to watch out for this would be if, say, you thought that Morton Smerdley was the greatest genius ever, and someone called on you to justify this, and you replied "Morton Smerdley became a Math Professor at just the age of 27" - but there are other people who became math professors at 27, or even 26, and yet you don't feel the special reverence toward them that you attach to Smerdley.


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I think it can be difficult to bracket derivative texts when thinking about biblical texts. E.g., most people's understanding of Genesis is heavily influenced by Milton, so it seems reasonable to think that their evaluation of Genesis is confounded by their evaluation of Paradise Lost. Some of the poetic value of Paradise Lost redounds back to Genesis.

I think that a lot of the value that people assign to the bible exists in derivative texts (or memes) that are located outside of the bible---I submit that this is the elusive sacred quantity that Adam Frank is talking about. A poetic analysis of the string of characters comprising the Book of Job will turn up little, if any, of this external value. So of course the Bible has a greater sacred quantity than Lord of the Rings...it's got a several-thousand-year head start in generating derivative works.

4MBlume12yThis probably explains a lot of the special status mentioned above (or below, rather -- the one trouble with comment voting is it leads to a rather unstable geography), assigned to star trek and star wars, as well as probably a lot of that assigned to Harry Potter
1byrnema12yNot only that, but the bible is a derivative work itself, with writings compiled over 2500 years. Tolkien would do well to write something in a single lifetime that could compare to the complexity of something written and rewritten by tens (if not hundreds) of authors. (Here, complexity could be measured by the quantity of ideas and intentional links between ideas.)
2Eliezer Yudkowsky12yDude, have you actually ever read the Bible? Try Deuteronomy. Then try Tolkien. I guarantee you'll fall asleep on Deuteronomy first.
2Cyan12yHuh. In my estimation, it's rather rare for you to so egregiously miss the point.
2Eliezer Yudkowsky12yThis is addressed to "the Bible is a derivative work with many authors", not "the derivative works lend sacredness to the Bible". The Pentateuch may be multiauthor but it still adds up to awfulness. Read the damn thing!
0Cyan12yI have done so, over many a loooong Saturday morning in the year-and-a-half of shul attendance preceding my bar mitzvah (as mandated by the council of synagogues in my city). Why are you bringing up literary awfulness in a discussion about where people get a sense of sacredness? One has very little to do with the other.
0thomblake12yI'm not sure I'd agree, but I think it's interesting that the word 'awful' seems appropriate here - not just plain 'bad'. 'awful' and 'sacred' really should be related concepts.
1Cyan12yA non-Bayesian! Burn the heretic! More seriously, the bible is not uniformly awful -- I'm rather fond of bits of Ecclesiastes, for example, particularly when set to music.
1Paul Crowley12yIn that case I'm missing it too. The point about Milton was that Milton can cause people to overestimate the Bible as a bit of poetry. If the discussion of quantity of ideas and intentional links isn't meant to bear on the Bible's poetic quality or any other useful merit, why are we talking about it?
1Cyan12yThe point about Milton was that Milton's poetry contributes to people's sense of the bible as a source of the sacred. Byrnema commented that the bible is a derivative work of itself, and this also contributes to people's sense of the bible as the source of the sacred; he then asserted that a single individual, even one as gifted as Tolkien, would be hard-pressed to replicate the effect. Finally, in a non-sequitur, Eliezer presented the fact that Deuteronomy (a law text, essentially) is less entertaining than the Lord of the Rings as a counter-argument.
3komponisto12yI don't think it's necessarily that much of a non-sequitur. Great literary works are often praised for their complexity, with the clear implication that this contributes to their being interesting as literature. If the Bible is so rich in complexity, why is it so boring to read? The answer, of course, is that the kind of complexity the Bible possesses isn't the kind that's relevant for judging literary quality. In the case of texts like Deuteronomy, we're not talking about things like dynamic characters, foreshadowing, ingenious use of language, etc -- hallmarks of conscious design by an author specifically trying to create literary art. No, we're talking about the Bronze Age equivalent of the tax code.
1Paul Crowley12yDo you not think that if the Bible really did have this extraordinary, hard-to-reproduce structure that contributed to the sense of the sacred people get from it, it would be more entertaining? (edited as requested - cheers!)
1steven046112yThere's a lot of room, I think, for rationalist analysis of the concept of "genre" and what automatic assumptions it leads us to make about both fiction and reality. If the Bible had been written in the style of a Japanese monster movie [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kaij%C5%AB], would people still think of God as the good guy?
1[anonymous]7yI always thought that the heroic literature (Kings and Judges, largely) of the Tanakh gets a lot better when you realize you're reading the Bronze Age Hebrew equivalent of Pacific Rim or Gurren Lagann: He knew he'd been beaten, but NO, Samson was WAY too badass to let the Philistines win just because they cut his hair. So he prayed to God, got his powers back and PULLED THE WHOLE FALSE TEMPLE DOWN! How awesome is that?
1Eliezer Yudkowsky12yI don't think the Bible could be written in any worse style than it is already. The only thing it could do to further sabotage itself would be to visibly not take itself seriously.
3thomblake12yIn case anyone is having trouble picturing what EY is talking about, link [http://www.lolcatbible.com/index.php?title=Genesis_1]
4dfranke12yI think the bible could just as well have been written this way, and people would take for granted that that's how sacred texts are supposed to sound. Fanatics would fight bloody wars over the theololgical signifance of Ceiling Cat's abstention from eating the earth, while more subdued scholars pointed out parallels between this and the Greek myth about Cronos.
0Cyan12yNo. I think people think of sacredness as a particular kind of importance. Importance does not require entertainment. (Note that I'm not defending byrnema's argument -- I'm just saying Eliezer failed to address it at all.)
0[anonymous]12yI'm not sure if it's worth commenting on the accidental language choice here, but brynema's female. (Or maybe my grasp of slang is bad; does "Dude" assume male-ness? If so, perhaps Eliezer could edit and then I could delete this comment.)

I actually turn to Tolkien when I'm in what I assume other people would call a "religious" mood: he has the virtues of poetic/literary merit and mythological self-consistency; moreover the fact that everyone, including the author, knows that it's completely false and made-up gives a clean separation between my emotional response and any possible intellectual import.

7Chase_Johnson12yHuh. You know, in many ways I think there are several fictional stand-bys that serve a somewhat similar function for me. One of them is Star Trek. I watched Star Trek TNG with my parents when I was younger, it was a weekly ritual. As an adult, I can recognize that it really isn't very good TV: the acting was often poor, the writing poorer, and don't even get me started on the technobabble. But it has a comfortableness to it that I find soothing in times of stress. LoTR, also. I do not think LoTR is great fiction. Tolkien was not a great writer. But it like to read it. It is a comfortable story, and has been with me for most of the years I could read. I think its interesting that perhaps atheists and rationalists can find some of the spirituality we are allegedly so bereft of in the pages (or fast-moving frames) of an acknowledged fictional work. I would not be surprised if this has come up before on LW, but I must have missed it if it has. EDIT: I also wonder if part of the difficulty in leaving religion is leaving the comfortable stories. To be taught for your entire life that the stories are true, and then realize that they might be false... to acknowledge such a realization might horribly taint the stories in ones mind. Humans seem to be very storytelling oriented, and it may be more powerful than we imagine, to reject ones storytelling tradition.
2Z_M_Davis12yI think I assign special status to Star Trek, too. Sure, it might be full of gaping plot holes and inconsistencies [http://www.cynicscorner.org/voy_5/voy_5.html], but [http://www.overcomingbias.com/2008/08/pebblesorting-p.html?cid=125889962#comment-125889962] --but--it's Trek!
1CronoDAS12yLots of people do, in fact, give a special status to Star Trek and Star Wars. Not quite the same kind of special status that people try to give to [insert religious book here], but it seems to go beyond normal fandom. For example, people declaring their religion as "Jedi" on census forms.
1Nanani12yThis is not surprising. Religion is a special case of fandom, not the other way around. I have a post on this somewhere in the depths of my entry-bunnies, but no idea when I'll post it.
1JulianMorrison12yI used to love Tolkien, when I was a kid. But honestly, I can't see the attraction as an adult. Piling centuries of backstory onto a character doesn't make it three-dimensional. And while Tolkien's short doggerel can be fun, his long poems are boring. I don't know - I'm not a poet - but they're probably technically excellent. That doesn't save them.
0Emile12yI love his long poems - I once memorized the Lay of Earendil, and Erranty, and The Hoard, and The Man in the Moon Came Down Too Soon, though I don't remember all of them now. It's nice to have something to recite to myself when waiting for the bus or something. And I do find most poetry boring; I have a collection of American verse, but it seems that Poe is the only worthwhile poet of the lot - of course, as for Tolkien, others will certainly differ on this. One person's trash is the next person's treasure, I guess.
0dclayh12ySo, when I first (tried to) read the Silmarillion in high school, I thought it was incredibly dry and boring. But when I came back to it a few years later in college I thought it was great, and still do (I now like it much better than LotR, in fact). Probably the sort of epic/mythological style it's written in is something one either loves or can't stand.

I just watched this BHTV.

I thought Eliezer might have done better getting through to Frank by making a comparison, not to Tolkien but to other mythologies. For example, Norse mythology is a lot of fun, and I will probably even read it to my kids when I have some. If I do so, then whatever good morals there are in those stories can be emphasized, and whatever bad ones there are may either be skipped or looked upon as history lessons. Pithy phrases and metaphors from the books may be freely used as literary tropes.

If Frank only wants to do that with the Bibl... (read more)

3wedrifid10yI observe that most of these 'old prejudices' are actually the prejudices made up a hundred or two years ago, not necessarily the ones from actual religious texts. "What the Bible says" seems more often to be "what grandma says", as can be seen clearly when you quote out of favour moral exhortations from the bible at Christians.

Are you going to do a bloggingheads with that guy who defeated Christopher Hitchens in a debate? (Or is "that guy" Adam Frank?) Either way, I'd really like to see it.

7Eliezer Yudkowsky12yHe turned it down.
4Wilka11yDid he give a reason? Just wondering if you're "not famous enough" for him to risk losing to you.
2Pablo_Stafforini8yMy suspicion is that he turned Eliezer down because he wants to stick to the standard debate format, where he excels. The few "debates" he lost, particularly the one with Shelly Kagan [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SiJnCQuPiuo], were actually informal conversations that closely resemble the sort of exchanges that take place on BloggingHeads.
1wedrifid8yI like the opening there. Essentially an eloquent and polite elaboration on "I'm at a disadvantage here because it's so obvious to all my peers that this position is right that it's hard for us to even see what the problem is and anticipate what arguments to counter. I mean, for crying it out loud we've been doing it for thousands of years so of course it is possible to do it."
2Eliezer Yudkowsky11yNope.
3Vladimir_Nesov12yI think it won't be interesting. From the looks of those debates, it won't work as a conversation, but only as a formal competition, like playing chess with a computer.

yet if you talked about Tolkien the way that Frank talked about Job, most people would write you down as a hopeless fanboy/fangirl...

Yet another reason for denying religion its special status: if we could just admit that most of humanity cares deeply for silly ideas, there'd be less tendancy to reject silly-sounding new concepts out of hand...

When I think about the Bible, I feel the links to real life experiences activate, memories of being dragged to church by force, talking to people poisoned by it, thinking about the destruction it wrought and the danger it poses. If you squint really hard you can almost see a dark aura emanating from the pages. Lord of the Rings is by comparison just pleasant PG-13 fun, a bit too long-winded at times and perfectly innocuous.

Really, there is a difference between the Bible and LoTR.

3byrnema12yEliezer knew he knew it from somewhere:

For anyone interested in wearing Frodo's ring around your neck: http://www.myprecious.us/

0timtyler12yThe tungsten carbide ones look nice: http://www.tungstenlord.com/tungsten-carbide-lord-of-the-ring.html [http://www.tungstenlord.com/tungsten-carbide-lord-of-the-ring.html]
-2[anonymous]12yDomain name newbie. It would be, in a perfect world, my.precio.us. Or did the trend change again? :o)
[-][anonymous]7y 2

you don't see people wearing little rings around their neck in memory of Frodo

I suspect you mean something like ‘you see many many fewer people wearing little rings than crosses’, but if you mean it literally it (slightly) surprises me and my model of the world (in particular, the part of the world you're in) needs updating.

4taelor7yRecently, there's been an upswing in people wearing replica Soul Gems in memory of Madoka.
0Nornagest7y"Frodo Lives!" [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frodo_Lives!] graffiti was common in the 1960s and 1970s, although this seems to have been more a counterculture shibboleth than anything else. Similarly, I've been seeing a lot of Deathly Hallows tattoos lately.

Eliezer: have you pointed out to Adam Frank that he's mispronouncing your name?

It's no more a bias than is the equally common mistake of believing that if "if A then B" is given, then knowing B allows us to deductively conclude A.

I think the term bias should be reserved for heuristics and cognitive optimizations which exist for very good evolutionary reasons but often go horribly awry, as opposed to things like "affirming the consequent" or the sloppy thought process you mentioned, which are symptomatic of an absent cognitive skill that we never had good reason to develop. The bias exploits a heavily selected-for cognitive process, whereas common logical ignorance is just a function of logical skill not really being part of our evolutionary heritage.

2Drahflow12yActually "If A then B. And B. Hence A." is probably a bias in your very sense, namely heavily selected for due to heuristic value. Example: You know: "Approaching Danger => Friendly People Crying" You perceive: "Friendly People Crying". Do you think there is danger? Well, the friendly people might be practical jokers, on the other hand, people who take the "might be practical jokers" train of thought have a tendency to get their genes removed from the pool.

In the case of emergent or even semi-design cultural systems special status is equated with special support, by default. It's an unstated tautology of the culture.

When a collection of stories or a collection of words is given treated in a ritualistic way by a cultural structure they take on part of the ritualization (I'm using something close to Catherine Bell's usage here) - which both requires them to take on special status and protects them from the critique which other tales or books may receive.

There's nothing particularly theistic or religious about ... (read more)

I seem to always only get round to reading posts well after the conversation about them is over, but anyway....

I think that Frank probably doesn't consciously know exactly why he has that opinion about that item, and that his justification is just a rationalisation.

If you want to avoid doing this sort of thing, you have to try and catch yourself when you're about to rationalise something.

You have to be aware that there can be unconsicous or implicit components behind your opinions, that these reasons can often not be very good. On the basis of this, y... (read more)

Scholars estimate that the book of Job, probably the work of multiple authors, was composed some time between the seventh and fifth centuries B.C.E. When comparing didactic poetry, does the fact that the book of Job is so old have anything to do with the reverence or specialness which some modern readers attach to it? Furthermore, is Job really a fitting example of Sacred Truth rather than, say, "sacred perplexity"? Is advanced age in a wisdom narrative a necessary condition of Sacredness? Is there something special about "touching the old," harkening back to an Overcoming Bias post by that name?

When I think about the Bible, I feel the links to real life experiences activate, memories of being dragged to church by force, talking to people poisoned by it, thinking about the destruction it wrought and the danger it poses. If you squint really hard you can almost see a dark aura emanating from the pages. Lord of the Rings is by comparison just pleasant PG-13 fun, a bit too long-winded at times and perfectly innocuous.

Really, there is a difference between the Bible and LoTR.

0TuviaDulin9yThat "difference" comes from the culture surrounding the two books, not any innate property or value of the books themselves.

you don't see people wearing little rings around their neck in memory of Frodo.

An odd claim, and just patently false. See one ring to wear around your neck from the site mentioned below.

1Cyan12ySemi-serious question: is there a difference between fandom and religion?
3MrHen12yI can see a somewhat convincing argument that all religions are fandoms but not one for all fandoms being religions.
3stcredzero12yThat reminds me of this guy's analysis of the "Objects of Fandom." (Namely, there has to be something quite good about it, and at the same time, something quite bad.) This applies to just about all religions in spades. http://plover.net/~bonds/objects.html [http://plover.net/~bonds/objects.html]
0jasonmcdowell12yI don't think fandom has supernatural practices/beliefs.
0Nanani12yNo. Will have expand on this sometime.

The sacred is sacred not solely because of its inherent properties but because it just is -- that is, a group of people have for a multitude of reasons and historical contigencies focused on this text, place, or object and assigned it a special status. This doesn't make much rationalist sense -- it's just the way these sort of things work.

0Vladimir_Nesov12yBut then the reasons you name are not true sources [http://www.overcomingbias.com/2008/12/your-true-rejec.html] of its special status, and you may as well be silent.
5Simey12yI disagree. If a non-believer argues that he considers the Book of Job to be a sacred text and therefore of a different quality than, say, The Merchant of Venice he does this most certainly on the grounds mentioned by mtavern. The mere fact that a certain thing is considered as sacred or is admired by a lot of people changes our perception of that thing and insofar adds a new quality to it. It does that even if a certain person doesn't admire it or believe in it. The fact that you (probably) don't admire Britney Spears does not change the fact that you regard her as a "celebrity" which is nothing else than the consequence of other people admiring her.
0mtraven12yVery good...celebreties are the secular gods of our age. And it is notable that phenomenon of "being famous for being famous" is widel acknowledged.
0fuzzybunn12yMight I also point out that the same irrational reasoning occurs when we pick mates? Our partners will probably share similar characteristics as many other people in the world, but the act of picking a partner immediately makes them more special than any of the thousands who may be just as pretty/intelligent/smart.
2MrHen12yThat is because the act of picking is what makes them special. If there were two exact clones of a person and I chose to marry one and not the other, my new spouse is more special than the extra clone. To carry this back to the original comparison between the Bible and LotR, the Bible is sacred because people believe it is the One Way. The act of believing is what makes it sacred. This carries into the celebrity example as well. The irrationality comes when someone thinks the causality is running the other way. Someone who believes in the Bible because it is sacred has the cause and effect backwards. Likewise, if I married my spouse because she was the most special I am being naive.

re: 'Special...'

I like Sagan's "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" formulation better.

And on a somewhat irrelevant note - Tolkien is great poetry? He's recitable, certainly, and his translations of 'The Pearl' or 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight' are justly lauded; but his own poetry isn't too great.

('Sing hey! For the bath at close of day \ that washes the weary mud away...')

3pjeby12yTry reciting "Troll sat alone on his seat of stone" with a rap beat to it... (Up came Tom/with his big boots on/and said to Troll,/Pray what is yon?!) If that's not great, what is? ;-)
2Paul Crowley12yI agree, but you can say the same thing about the Bible. Neither are going to survive comparison with, say, Auden.
1Eliezer Yudkowsky12yYup. I'm not comparing Tolkien to any of the legendary professional poets, I'm comparing Tolkien's fiction to the Book of Job.
1dclayh12yMyself, I'm slightly obsessed [http://www.princeton.edu/~hambrick/earendil.pdf] with "Earendil was a Mariner".
0arundelo12yI think Aragorn and Legolas's eulogy for Boromir (at the beginning of The Two Towers) is great.

Frank and Eliezer both miss the point. It's really a question of priorities - is "starting over," in Eliezer's terms, a productive endeavor?

I think no. It's not that these institutions or texts have any special aesthetic or epistemic value, they're just really powerful. There's a reason the Catholic Church has been around for so long. We know that the religious can live in a socially responsible manner, just as we know that atheists are capable of great evil. It seems to me to be a horse and cart question - I think increasing standards of living ... (read more)