Excluding the Supernatural

by Eliezer Yudkowsky7 min read12th Sep 2008140 comments



Occasionally, you hear someone claiming that creationism should not be taught in schools, especially not as a competing hypothesis to evolution, because creationism is a priori and automatically excluded from scientific consideration, in that it invokes the "supernatural".

So... is the idea here, that creationism could be true, but even if it were true, you wouldn't be allowed to teach it in science class, because science is only about "natural" things?

It seems clear enough that this notion stems from the desire to avoid a confrontation between science and religion.  You don't want to come right out and say that science doesn't teach Religious Claim X because X has been tested by the scientific method and found false.  So instead, you can... um... claim that science is excluding hypothesis X a priori.  That way you don't have to discuss how experiment has falsified X a posteriori.

Of course this plays right into the creationist claim that Intelligent Design isn't getting a fair shake from science—that science has prejudged the issue in favor of atheism, regardless of the evidence.  If science excluded Intelligent Design a priori, this would be a justified complaint!

But let's back up a moment.  The one comes to you and says:  "Intelligent Design is excluded from being science a priori, because it is 'supernatural', and science only deals in 'natural' explanations."

What exactly do they mean, "supernatural"?  Is any explanation invented by someone with the last name "Cohen" a supernatural one?  If we're going to summarily kick a set of hypotheses out of science, what is it that we're supposed to exclude?

By far the best definition I've ever heard of the supernatural is Richard Carrier's:  A "supernatural" explanation appeals to ontologically basic mental things, mental entities that cannot be reduced to nonmental entities.

This is the difference, for example, between saying that water rolls downhill because it wants to be lower, and setting forth differential equations that claim to describe only motions, not desires.  It's the difference between saying that a tree puts forth leaves because of a tree spirit, versus examining plant biochemistry.  Cognitive science takes the fight against supernaturalism into the realm of the mind.

Why is this an excellent definition of the supernatural?  I refer you to Richard Carrier for the full argument.  But consider:  Suppose that you discover what seems to be a spirit, inhabiting a tree: a dryad who can materialize outside or inside the tree, who speaks in English about the need to protect her tree, et cetera.  And then suppose that we turn a microscope on this tree spirit, and she turns out to be made of parts—not inherently spiritual and ineffable parts, like fabric of desireness and cloth of belief; but rather the same sort of parts as quarks and electrons, parts whose behavior is defined in motions rather than minds.  Wouldn't the dryad immediately be demoted to the dull catalogue of common things?

But if we accept Richard Carrier's definition of the supernatural, then a dilemma arises: we want to give religious claims a fair shake, but it seems that we have very good grounds for excluding supernatural explanations a priori.

I mean, what would the universe look like if reductionism were false?

I previously defined the reductionist thesis as follows: human minds create multi-level models of reality in which high-level patterns and low-level patterns are separately and explicitly represented.  A physicist knows Newton's equation for gravity, Einstein's equation for gravity, and the derivation of the former as a low-speed approximation of the latter.  But these three separate mental representations, are only a convenience of human cognition.  It is not that reality itself has an Einstein equation that governs at high speeds, a Newton equation that governs at low speeds, and a "bridging law" that smooths the interface.  Reality itself has only a single level, Einsteinian gravity.  It is only the Mind Projection Fallacy that makes some people talk as if the higher levels could have a separate existence—different levels of organization can have separate representations in human maps, but the territory itself is a single unified low-level mathematical object.

Suppose this were wrong.

Suppose that the Mind Projection Fallacy was not a fallacy, but simply true.

Suppose that a 747 had a fundamental physical existence apart from the quarks making up the 747.

What experimental observations would you expect to make, if you found yourself in such a universe?

If you can't come up with a good answer to that, it's not observation that's ruling out "non-reductionist" beliefs, but a priori logical incoherence.  If you can't say what predictions the "non-reductionist" model makes, how can you say that experimental evidence rules it out?

My thesis is that non-reductionism is a confusion; and once you realize that an idea is a confusion, it becomes a tad difficult to envision what the universe would look like if the confusion were true.  Maybe I've got some multi-level model of the world, and the multi-level model has a one-to-one direct correspondence with the causal elements of the physics?  But once all the rules are specified, why wouldn't the model just flatten out into yet another list of fundamental things and their interactions?  Does everything I can see in the model, like a 747 or a human mind, have to become a separate real thing?  But what if I see a pattern in that new supersystem?

Supernaturalism is a special case of non-reductionism, where it is not 747s that are irreducible, but just (some) mental things.  Religion is a special case of supernaturalism, where the irreducible mental things are God(s) and souls; and perhaps also sins, angels, karma, etc.

If I propose the existence of a powerful entity with the ability to survey and alter each element of our observed universe, but with the entity reducible to nonmental parts that interact with the elements of our universe in a lawful way; if I propose that this entity wants certain particular things, but "wants" using a brain composed of particles and fields; then this is not yet a religion, just a naturalistic hypothesis about a naturalistic Matrix.  If tomorrow the clouds parted and a vast glowing amorphous figure thundered forth the above description of reality, then this would not imply that the figure was necessarily honest; but I would show the movies in a science class, and I would try to derive testable predictions from the theory.

Conversely, religions have ignored the discovery of that ancient bodiless thing: omnipresent in the working of Nature and immanent in every falling leaf: vast as a planet's surface and billions of years old: itself unmade and arising from the structure of physics: designing without brain to shape all life on Earth and the minds of humanity.  Natural selection, when Darwin proposed it, was not hailed as the long-awaited Creator:  It wasn't fundamentally mental.

But now we get to the dilemma: if the staid conventional normal boring understanding of physics and the brain is correct, there's no way in principle that a human being can concretely envision, and derive testable experimental predictions about, an alternate universe in which things are irreducibly mental.  Because, if the boring old normal model is correct, your brain is made of quarks, and so your brain will only be able to envision and concretely predict things that can predicted by quarks.  You will only ever be able to construct models made of interacting simple things.

People who live in reductionist universes cannot concretely envision non-reductionist universes.  They can pronounce the syllables "non-reductionist" but they can't imagine it.

The basic error of anthropomorphism, and the reason why supernatural explanations sound much simpler than they really are, is your brain using itself as an opaque black box to predict other things labeled "mindful".  Because you already have big, complicated webs of neural circuitry that implement your "wanting" things, it seems like you can easily describe water that "wants" to flow downhill—the one word "want" acts as a lever to set your own complicated wanting-machinery in motion.

Or you imagine that God likes beautiful things, and therefore made the flowers.  Your own "beauty" circuitry determines what is "beautiful" and "not beautiful".  But you don't know the diagram of your own synapses.  You can't describe a nonmental system that computes the same label for what is "beautiful" or "not beautiful"—can't write a computer program that predicts your own labelings.  But this is just a defect of knowledge on your part; it doesn't mean that the brain has no explanation.

If the "boring view" of reality is correct, then you can never predict anything irreducible because you are reducible.  You can never get Bayesian confirmation for a hypothesis of irreducibility, because any prediction you can make is, therefore, something that could also be predicted by a reducible thing, namely your brain.

Some boxes you really can't think outside.  If our universe really is Turing computable, we will never be able to concretely envision anything that isn't Turing-computable—no matter how many levels of halting oracle hierarchy our mathematicians can talk about, we won't be able to predict what a halting oracle would actually say, in such fashion as to experimentally discriminate it from merely computable reasoning.

Of course, that's all assuming the "boring view" is correct.  To the extent that you believe evolution is true, you should not expect to encounter strong evidence against evolution.  To the extent you believe reductionism is true, you should expect non-reductionist hypotheses to be incoherent as well as wrong.  To the extent you believe supernaturalism is false, you should expect it to be inconceivable as well.

If, on the other hand, a supernatural hypothesis turns out to be true, then presumably you will also discover that it is not inconceivable.

So let us bring this back full circle to the matter of Intelligent Design:

Should ID be excluded a priori from experimental falsification and science classrooms, because, by invoking the supernatural, it has placed itself outside of natural philosophy?

I answer:  "Of course not."  The irreducibility of the intelligent designer is not an indispensable part of the ID hypothesis.  For every irreducible God that can be proposed by the IDers, there exists a corresponding reducible alien that behaves in accordance with the same predictions—since the IDers themselves are reducible; to the extent I believe reductionism is in fact correct, which is a rather strong extent, I must expect to discover reducible formulations of all supposedly supernatural predictive models.

If we're going over the archeological records to test the assertion that Jehovah parted the Red Sea out of an explicit desire to display its superhuman power, then it makes little difference whether Jehovah is ontologically basic, or an alien with nanotech, or a Dark Lord of the Matrix.  You do some archeology, find no skeletal remnants or armor at the Red Sea site, and indeed find records that Egypt ruled much of Canaan at the time.  So you stamp the historical record in the Bible "disproven" and carry on.  The hypothesis is coherent, falsifiable and wrong.

Likewise with the evidence from biology that foxes are designed to chase rabbits, rabbits are designed to evade foxes, and neither is designed "to carry on their species" or "protect the harmony of Nature"; likewise with the retina being designed backwards with the light-sensitive parts at the bottom; and so on through a thousand other items of evidence for splintered, immoral, incompetent design.  The Jehovah model of our alien god is coherent, falsifiable, and wrong—coherent, that is, so long as you don't care whether Jehovah is ontologically basic or just an alien.

Just convert the supernatural hypothesis into the corresponding natural hypothesis.  Just make the same predictions the same way, without asserting any mental things to be ontologically basic.  Consult your brain's black box if necessary to make predictions—say, if you want to talk about an "angry god" without building a full-fledged angry AI to label behaviors as angry or not angry.  So you derive the predictions, or look up the predictions made by ancient theologians without advance knowledge of our experimental results.  If experiment conflicts with those predictions, then it is fair to speak of the religious claim having been scientifically refuted.  It was given its just chance at confirmation; it is being excluded a posteriori, not a priori.

Ultimately, reductionism is just disbelief in fundamentally complicated things.  If "fundamentally complicated" sounds like an oxymoron... well, that's why I think that the doctrine of non-reductionism is a confusion, rather than a way that things could be, but aren't.  You would be wise to be wary, if you find yourself supposing such things.

But the ultimate rule of science is to look and see.  If ever a God appeared to thunder upon the mountains, it would be something that people looked at and saw.

Corollary:  Any supposed designer of Artificial General Intelligence who talks about religious beliefs in respectful tones, is clearly not an expert on reducing mental things to nonmental things; and indeed knows so very little of the uttermost basics, as for it to be scarcely plausible that they could be expert at the art; unless their idiot savancy is complete.  Or, of course, if they're outright lying.  We're not talking about a subtle mistake.


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It seems like you should be able to make experimental predictions about irreducible things. Take a quark, or a gluon, or the Grand Quantum Lifestream, or whatever reality is at the bottom, I don't really follow physics closely. In any case, you can make predictions about those things, and that's part and parcel of making predictions about airplanes and grizzly bears.

Even if it turns out that the Grand Quantum Lifestream is reducible further, you can make predictions about its components. Unless you think everything is infinitely reducible, but that prop... (read more)

I had a similar, shorter conversation with a theologian. He had hired me to critique a book he was writing, which claimed that reductionist science had reached its limits, and that it was time to turn to non-reductionist science.

The examples he gave were all phenomena which science had difficulty explaining, and which he claimed to explain as being irreducibly complex. For instance, because people had difficulty explaining how cells migrate in a developing fetus, he suggested (as Aristotle might have) that the cells had an innate fate or desire that led them to the right location.

What he really meant by non-reductionist science, was that as a "non-reductionist scientist", one is allowed to throw up one's hands, and say that there is no explanation for something. A claim that a phenomenon is supernatural is always the assertion that something has no explanation. (I don't know that it needs to be presented as a mental phenomenon, as Eliezer says.) So to "do" non-reductionist science is simply to not do science.

It should be possible, then, for a religious person to rightly claim that their point of view is outside the realm of science. If they said, for insta... (read more)

-1buybuydandavis9yNo. Good scientists say that there are no current explanations all the time. The non-reductionist claims to know that there can't ever be an explanation. That's the opposite of throwing up your hands and saying you don't have an explanation. That's a claim to know that all possible explanations will fail.
5Grognor9ybeat You tried to make a contradiction, but you ended up saying exactly the same thing. "There is no explanation," means no explanation exists, which is the nonsense position that Phil attacked three years ago. "We don't have an explanation yet," is entirely sensible, of course, which is why that position has never been attacked by anyone, ever.
-1buybuydandavis9yNo explanation exists for why there is lint in my belly button. No one has explained it, even to themselves. Now, if we think about it, we may come up with an explanation, but that doesn't mean the explanation exists now, anymore than a house we might build exists now because we might build it. No explanation exists for X <> there can never be an explanation for X.

I have a feeling "no explanation exists" was meant in the mathematical sense of "exists". Which means exactly that there is no possible string of characters that is an explanation for X.

Once, in a LARP, I played Isaac Asimov on a panel which was arguing whether vampires were real. It went something like this (modulo my memory): I asked the audience to define "vampire", and they said that vampires were creatures that lived by drinking blood.

I said that mosquitoes were vampires. So they said that vampires were humanoids who lived by drinking blood.

I said that Masai who drank the blood of their cattle were vampires. So they said that vampires were humanoids who lived by drinking blood, and were burned by sunlight.

I (may have) said that a Masai with xeroderma pigmentosum was a vampire. And so on.

My point was that vampires were by definition not real - or at least, not understandable - because any time we found something real and understandable that met the definition of a vampire, we would change the definition to exclude it.

(Strangely, some mythical creatures, such as vampires and unicorns, seem to be defined in a spiritual way; whereas others, such as mermaids and centaurs, do not. A horse genetically engineered to grow a horn would probably not be thought of as a "real" unicorn; a genenged mermaid probably would be admitted to be a "real" mermaid.)

4buybuydandavis9yDaniel Dennett has a cute one like this. Real Magic (the kind in Vegas) is not Real Magic (Abracadabra shazam poof!).
2dlthomas9yI think my first encounter with this was James Randi, which makes a lot of sense. I don't know if it was originally his, either, though.
5buybuydandavis8yFound the quote the other day. Makes sense that Randi knew it too. Apparently Siegel was a magician and professor too, who wrote a book on Indian magic. youtube, Free Will as Moral Competence, Daniel Dennett at the University of Melbourne, Australia, 15:21 Dennett quotes from "Net of Magic", by Lee Siegel Quote from book: "I'm writing a book on magic, " I explain, and I'm asked, "Real magic?" By real magic people mean miracles, thaumaturgical acts, and supernatural powers. "No, " I answer: "Conjuring tricks, not real magic." Dennett: Real magic, in other words, refers to the magic that is not real, while the magic that is real, that can actually be done, is not real magic.
4[anonymous]8yThat's the same quirk in natural language by which a heavy drinker is not usually a drinker who weighs a lot. ( can mean ‘a who/which is ’, or ‘someone/something who/which is ly a ’.)
1Alicorn8yThank you for articulating my problem with the "real magic" quote.
-1shminux8ySurely real magic is done through yet-unknown means. It might stop being magical some day, once explained (reduced), in compliance with Clarke's 3rd law [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clarke's_three_laws].
3[anonymous]9yDunno if it's because I'm not a native English speaker, but my intuition about the words unicorn and mermaid doesn't agree (whereas it does agree e.g. with Gettier about the precise meaning of knowledge, and most other similar problems about precise meanings of words).
3Prismattic9yI am a native English speaker, and I don't agree with the quoted passage either.

I think this depends a lot on your exposure to centaur and unicorn myths. Both creatures were imagined in Greece; the centaur was just a mashup of man and horse, and the unicorn was just a kind of horned donkey found in faraway places. Thus, if you slapped a horn on some donkeys (or just found an oryx) you'd have a Greek unicorn.

But in medieval Europe, the unicorn became a symbol of purity, able to cure diseases and drawn to virgins. Oryxes can't cure diseases and aren't drawn to (human) virgins, which to a large extent is the point of a unicorn (to someone who adopts the medieval European imagination of unicorns).

1[anonymous]9yYeah, that must be the reason. I'm not familiar with mediaeval myths about unicorns, so it means pretty much “a horse with a horn” (but I wouldn't count an oryx as one -- the uni- part means it has to only have one horn, doesn't it :-)), but on the other hand I know about the myth of the mermaids' singing (and Ulysses's strategy to cope with it) so I wouldn't count the top half of a woman glued onto the bottom half of a fish as one.
3Vaniver9yInterestingly, mermaid myths may have been deliberate hoaxes [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mermaid#Human_divers], which makes the question of a "real" mermaid even muddier. I'm not sure how Ctesias or Aristotle would react to seeing an oryx- they might decide it's a new duoceros different from monoceri or they might say "oops, I guess we only saw depictions of monoceri in profile, they actually have two horns."
9ArisKatsaris9yA nitpick: The Odyssey had sirens singing, not mermaids -- and those were half-bird women, not half-fish women. See how they were depicted in ancient times [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Odysseus_Sirens_BM_E440_n2.jpg]
4Alejandro19yIn Spanish (and presumably also in whichever language is army's native tongue, if it is not Spanish) the word 'sirena' is used for both siren and mermaid, hence the confusion.
1[anonymous]9yYes, it's Italian.
2DSimon9yHow about: Vampires are humanoids that can sustain themselves only by drinking blood? That excludes blood-drinking when done occasionally or as a cultural practice.
0MinibearRex9yWhat about a human with altered biochemistry, such that they could synthesize all needed biological materials from compounds found in blood? Is that a vampire?
1dlthomas9y"Only by", not "by only".
0MinibearRex9yFine. Humans that are incapable of metabolizing anything other than hemoglobin. Does that count?
2dlthomas9yI'd call them a vampire, but it'd be partly in jest. DSimon's below [http://lesswrong.com/lw/tv/excluding_the_supernatural/5h7d] would give me even less pause, and with a fuller list [http://lesswrong.com/lw/tv/excluding_the_supernatural/5h7s] it seems to become entirely uncontroversial.
1TheOtherDave9yIf it turned out that there was a rare degenerative illness that prevented sufferers from absorbing nutrition from any source other than blood, would you agree that sufferers of that illness were vampires?
0DSimon9yAck. Okay, I guess I have no choice but to add yet another qualifier. :-) How about: Vampires are very long-lived humanoids that derive their longevity from drinking blood. I can't think of a mundane example that fits that description. Which I suppose was Phil's original point: the only useful definition of "vampire" is one which excludes everything that could plausibly exist.
0[anonymous]9yVampires are humanoids that don't have a functioning heart and which retain the memories of the human host whose death was necessary for their creation. (And they sure as heck don't glitter - that part is critical!)
4Peter_de_Blanc9ySo according to you, a mosquito that isn't real is a vampire?
0MinibearRex9yHis point is that: P(not real | vampire) ~= 1, which is not the same as: "vampire = not real". It's an if-then relationship, not a logical equivalency.
4Peter_de_Blanc9yI understand that Phil was not suggesting that all non-real things are vampires. That's why my example was a mosquito that isn't real, rather than, say, a Toyota that isn't real.
-1MinibearRex9yBut there's nothing particularly special about a mosquito. It's still an incorrect application of modus tollens. We have: If something is a vampire, then it is not real. From this, we can infer (from modus tollens) that if something is real, then it is not a vampire. Thus, if a certain mosquito is real, it is not a vampire. However, there is nothing here that justifies the belief that if a certain mosquito is imaginary, then it is a vampire.
4Peter_de_Blanc9yWhat's special about a mosquito is that it drinks blood. Phil originally said this: Note Phil's use of the word "because" here. Phil is claiming that if vampires weren't unreal-by-definition, then the audience would not have changed their definition whenever provided with a real example of a vampire as defined. It follows that the original definition would have been acceptable had it been augmented with the "not-real" requirement, and so this is the claim I was responding to with the unreal mosquito example.
0MinibearRex9yAh. That makes more sense.

My point was that vampires were by definition not real - or at least, not understandable - because any time we found something real and understandable that met the definition of a vampire, we would change the definition to exclude it.

Nonsense. If there was a creature that:

  • Used to be a normal living human
  • Still looks human
  • Has the same internal organs but none of them are functioning
  • Isn't vulnerable to hemlock
  • Has more strength than could plausibly attributed to humans according to our understanding of genetics
  • Has teeth which extend to fangs and then retract.
  • Can only be sustained by blood.
  • Definitely doesn't glitter. Ever.
  • Physically cannot enter people's houses due to physical restraint that seems to be only operating on the creature. Exception - can enter people's houses if invited.
  • Starts behaving like the human that they used to be except with extreme sociopathic and homicidal tendencies.
  • Is unaffected by getting stabbed in the chest by anything but a wooden stake. (Wooden stake kills him.)
  • Burns when exposed to sunlight, holy water or religious symbols.
  • Instantly turns to dust when staked, decapitated or sufficiently burnt via the aforementioned causes.

... then basically everyone would agree it was a vampire. LARPy Asimov is just being annoying when he tries to spin the question about the universe into a question about semantics.

0dlthomas9yExcept some Twilight fans.
4JoshuaZ9yThe key issue seems to not be the fiction but that the elements creating your "vampire" are separate. Your Masai with xeroderma pigmentosum has vampiric properties because of distinct separate events. If there were say a single virus that made people both have a similar light aversion and made them desire blood, I don't think most people would have a problem calling them vampires.
1[anonymous]9yIndeed, I would not object to being called a vampire if I had porphyria [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Porphyria]. (I was going to write “call someone a vampire if they have”, but I realize they might conceivably find it offensive.)
-3V_V8yActually... [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vampire_bat]

Phil: Vampires ARE real. Both humans and animals can become vampires after being bitten by another vampire (very often a bat or racoon). After being bitten, they will go crazy and attempt to bite others. They also are unable to cross running water.

The virus has been discovered, and a vaccine exists.


Yeah, I know, those aren't "real" vampires, even though that is very likely the source of the vampire mythology.

Of course water flows downhill because it wants to be lower. It just is not in its nature to be able to want anything else, which distinguishes it from more flexible want-systems like ourselves.

As to the supernatural, I suggest a useful analogy is mathematical objects, like 5, pi, the complex plane, or the Pythagorean theorem. These objects are not physical; they are not made of quarks nor reducible to them, even though any concrete instantiation of them (or instantiation of a thought about them) must involve some physical process; they are non-natural e... (read more)

5Perplexed10yPure theology is relatively harmless. It's when they start doing applied theology that I wish they would get someone competent to check their calculations.
1Kenny8yFunny that you use mathematics as an analogy to something being argued as irreducible, as mathematics is all reducible to fundamentally simple components. And one could even argue that mathematics is 'reducible' to simple physical systems; it's not like you're claiming that every other non-ontologically-fundamental concept or category is Platonically supernatural. What makes the patterns of mathematics special?
4TheAncientGeek4yMathematics doesn't escape the Munchausen Trilemma...how do you justify your axioms?
0Kenny4yMathematics, the thing that humans do, completely side-steps the trilemma. There's no need to justify any particular axiom, qua mathematics, because one can investigate the system(s) implied by any set of axioms. But practically, e.g. when trying to justify the use of mathematics to describe the world or some part thereof, one must accept some axioms to even be able to 'play the game'. Radical skepticism, consistently held, is impractical, e.g. if you can't convince yourself that you and I are communicating then how do you convince yourself that there's a Munchausen Trilemma to be solved (or dissolved), let alone anything else about which to reason?
1TheAncientGeek4yThere's a need to justify axioms if you are going to regard your theorems as true. Game-playing formalism amounts to that, but it is not "mathematics" per se, it is a rather radical take on mathematics. Which then gets back to the trilemma. Even if I have reason to reject radical scepticism, that doesn't mean I have a solution to the Trilemma.
2Kenny4yI just don't feel that this a real practical problem to be solved – I don't have any relevant intuitions about why it would be. In particular, it doesn't seem like the many interesting results relating to the axiom of choice (AC) – or even more specifically results pertaining to what can or cannot be proved assuming the axiom is true, or not so assuming – are "game-playing formalism". It just doesn't seem to me like it's a particularly useful notion that we must decide, once and for all, whether AC is true or not. What do you or would you, personally, mean by believing that Euclidean geometry is not true? To me it seems like it's true by default, i.e. 'it' is just all the things implied by its axioms. Whether it's a useful theory with respect to understanding the universe we inhabit is a separate question (and it certainly seems to be the case to me that it is). What then is left by wondering still whether it's 'true'? I don't follow you. If we "must accept some axioms to even be able to 'play the game'" then it seems like, at least practically, the trilemma is solved by accepting the 'axiomatic argument', i.e. "accepted precepts".
2TheAncientGeek4yI can make no sense of that, because taking something as true only in relation to an axiom whose truth is itself unknown is precisely what game playing formalism means. You seem to simultaneously asserting and denying he same thing. GPF mean Euclidean isn't true in any sense other than being a valid deduction from arbitrary premises,..for instance, that it isn't true in the sense of corresponding to the territory, and that it isn't true in the sense of being derived from non-arbitrary premises. As it happens, our best physics tells us that the universe does not have Euclidean geometry, so truth by correspondence is out, and we also know that the Euclidean axioms are not the only self -consistent axiom set, so the axioms of Euclidean geometry look arbitrary. All that being the case, Euclidean geometry is either false simpliciter, or true only in the diluted sense allowed by GPF. Again, you seem to be agreeing with the substance of GPF while rejecting the label. If it were true in a full-strength sense, that would be an example of something that has evaded the Muchausen Trilemma. I think you are missing something important. The Trilemma doesn't just mean you have to choose between three methods of justification, it means you have to choose between three bad methods. If you can only say that something is true relative to some arbitrary axioms, then you can't say it is true in an absolute sense.
0Kenny4yHow do you know that? How could I know that? Is either of our knowledge of this 'true'? I don't understand how we're having this conversation if we don't both consider some things true and even agree that some of the same things are true. Yeah, that seems to be the case. Is the label not pejorative? Is it not intended to exclude the substance to which it refers by mockery? I don't know why this would be interesting in and of itself. Assuming anything could be "true in a full-strength sense" and something was 'true in that sense', what would that mean? It seems like you're trying to push some kind of imagined reductio ad absurdum but I refuse to play your game! I pronounce the Trilemma dissolved by virtue of the 'axiomatic argument' not being a bad method for justifying truth, actual mundane truth not 'absolute truth'. I agree and I freely admit that nothing is true in an absolute sense. I don't even know what that would mean. What could possibly be true – and expressible in a language made and used by humans – "in an absolute sense"? Could you explain to me what the difference would be between something that is merely 'mundanely true' and something that is 'absolutely true'? What would be different about the world if something was 'absolutely true'? What would be different if we knew that something was 'absolutely true'? And even if something was absolutely true how could we ever trust that we could know it was 'absolutely true'?
1TheAncientGeek4yI am not asserting that nothing is true. No and no. Prinicpally that its truth doesn't depend on arbitrary assumptions. Most people think of mundane truth as absolute truth. The relative truth offered by GPF is a rather idiosyncratic taste. It's meaning is a straightforward reversal of "in a relative sense". If the one is comprehensible, so is the other. Of course, you might be using "I can't see what absolute truth would mean" to mean "I can't see how absolute truth can be obtained".... I never used the phrase "mundanely true", so I don't have to explain it. As I have explained, the popular notion of truth is absolute, not relative, so the Munchausen Trilemma, if irresolvable, has the momentous implication that people can't have the only kind of truth they believe in.
0Kenny4yThat seems unlikely. Describing something as 'game-playing' seems to be clearly implying that it's not serious, and therefore unworthy of serious consideration. How do you know it's not pejorative? Or were you merely asserting that you are not using it pejoratively? I'm still confused. If a truth doesn't depend on "arbitrary assumptions" what makes it different than an "arbitrary assumption"? If you're familiar with mathematics, what would a sketch of a 'constructive proof' of an absolute truth look or seem like? Presumably, something "true in a full-strength sense" would not depend on "arbitrary assumptions". If it depends on no other truths it seems equivalent to an axiom. Do you disagree? If you do disagree, can you help me understand how a truth like this could exist? Could you describe anything about such a truth that would be different than other truths? Let's ignore most people. I don't think of mundane truth as absolute truth. If you're not arguing that they're the same, what are you arguing? So there's nothing else distinctive about absolute truth other than it 'not being relative'? That seems pretty uninteresting. Of course you might have written: but you didn't actually mean anything by it. You haven't committed to claiming that mathematics is false; just that they're not 'absolutely true'. You haven't provided any means of distinguishing 'absolute truth' from any other kind other than claiming that the former is the complement of the latter among the set of all truths (or something similar). You haven't offered any reason to care about 'absolute truth' or any ideas about the benefits acquiring such truths would render; nor any constructive, even-minutely-specific details about how one would acquire them. I'm not arguing for any popular notion of truth. I claim truth is not absolute and cannot be. Is there anything left to discuss? Note that my original comment to which you replied was about mathematics being reducible, not absolutely true (or
0TheAncientGeek4yPrincipally the latter, I suppose, although I don;t think it is particularly perjoritive in any case. There are any number of areas of knowledge where the axioms aren't at all obvious. Consider an observation. Is that an axiom? And there's nothing distinctive about God's existence other than it's being the opposite of God's non-existence. You seem to be associating momentousness with complexity. The means of distinguishing them is just the kind of argument we are having now. Of course, that is not particularly algorithmic. If you are running on the implicit assumption that nothing is meaningful unless it has very precise, algorithmic truth conditions, then that could do with being made explicit. I have in fact explained why the non existence of absolute truth would turn the world upside down for billions of people. Consider use of arbitrary axiom in arguments with real-world implications: Axiom1: You owe me a whole number sum greater than $99. Axiom2: You owe me a whole number sum less than $101. Conclusion: You owe me $100. So.. do you owe me that money? Arbitrary axioms are relatively safe in mathematics, because it is abstract..they are pretty disastrous when applied to the real world. Yes: whether you are correct. Mathematics does not "compeltely" sidestep the Munchausen Trillema, because completely sidestrepping it would not involve a compromise nature of truth!
0Kenny4yIt's not clear to me how your reply is relevant. But by your own criteria, in what sense do these areas consist of 'knowledge' if there are no obvious axioms? In what sense is something known if it's not true? Do you mean knowledge in a sense that I would accept? Regardless of the obviousness of axioms for a particular area of knowledge – doesn't an area of knowledge accept – at least implicitly – a number of axioms? It sure seems to me that, in practice, every area of knowledge simply accepts many claims as axioms because it's impossible to reason at all without assuming something. For example, every area assumes that people exist, that the relevant object(s) of study exist, that people can gather evidence somehow of the objects of study, that the universe is not arbitrary and capricious 'magic', etc. That's not true (ha)! Certainly God's existence is incredibly distinctive in so far that God has definite attributes and there is some correlation between those attributes and the universe we can observe. If there is no such evidence it's not clear in what sense God 'exists'. What I've yet to glean from your comments is how 'absolute truth' is any different than 'green sound'. They're both short phrases but neither seems to refer to anything. The argument in which I've been participating is whether 'absolute truth' is coherent in principle. A means of distinguishing it from some other potential kind of 'truth' would certainly help me better understand what you seem to be trying to communicate. What's not "particularly algorithmic"? I don't think you've provided a means of distinguishing between absolute truth and other truths. Did I miss it or miss them? I'd be curious if you could offer any potential means in any form. You did? You simply asserted that most people conflate 'truth' and 'absolute truth' but I disagree. For one reason, I can't distinguish between people believing something to be an 'absolute truth' and believing something to be an 'axiom'. But le
2CCC4yIt's kind of a side point, but there actually is such a thing as green noise [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colors_of_noise#Green_noise] (there's actually four different definitions...)
1Kenny4yDefinitely a side point, but thanks for the info anyways!
1TheAncientGeek4yIn the sense that they are taught in classrooms, cited in encyclopedias and so on. Take empirical knowledge. It may be based on vague intuitions, but it isn't based on formal axioms. I have no idea what you would accept. I have been drawing a distinction between necessary presuppositions ("intuitions") and arbitrary premises ("axioms). The wholesale embrace of derivation from arbitrary axioms as fully-fledged truth leads to the undesirable outcome of an epistemological explosion..every proposition becomes proveable and disproveable. Trying to manage without even the most basic intuition is desirable, but, as far as we can tell, impossible. However, the ineradicability of some intuitions doesn't make the wholesale embrace of arbitrary axioms a good idea! If we cannot manage without intuitions, we can avoid the worst of the problems by minimising their use, particularly in real-world contexts, but that is damage containment, not a full solution, If "depends on axioms" has a meaning, "does not depend on axioms" has a meaning. Whether truth indpendent of axioms is obtainable is another question. Only if the law of the excluded middle remain robustly true, which it doesn't... The argument is supposed to work as a reductio ad absurdum. You are supposed to disbelieve the conclusion that you owe me money, and therefore reject the assumption that "truths about the real world can be derived from arbitrary axioms". And notice the amount of work being done by "arbitrary" here. There is some sort of evidence of argument for all of those, so they are neither arbitrary nor axiomatic, strictly speaking. That amounts to saying that the MT is true because it is false. That there is no absolute truth, no entirely satisfactory means of justification is the conclusion of the MT, so adopting it as a premise is hardly to argue against MT. You seem to think that in the absence of absolute truth , relative truth is 1) unavoidable and 2) unproblematic. But 1) doesn't follow, b
0Dacyn4yThe investigation of the systems implied by a set of axioms also requires some assumptions. For example, one must assume that any axiom implies itself, i.e. P -> P. Once this axiom is accepted, there are a great number of logical axioms which are equally plausible.
"My thesis is that non-reductionism is a confusion; and once you realize that an idea is a confusion, it becomes a tad difficult to envision what the universe would look like if the confusion were true."

I still seem to be able to envision what things would look like if a form of Cartesian dualism were true. Our ordinary laws of physics would govern all matter except one or more places deep in the brain, where the laws of physics would be violated where the soul is "pulling the strings" of the body, as it were. These deviations from physics would not happen unlawfully, but rather would be governed by special, complicated laws of psychology, rather than physics. In principle, this should be testable.

Unlawfulness and nonreductionism are distinct concepts; I can see how the former is incoherent, but the latter still seems logically possible, if false.

2Kenny8yI personally can't imagine anything fundamentally complicated. I guess I could imagine tho that something might be a black box with complicated behavior, i.e. something complicated but with no parts that could be analyzed separately (because we can't open the box for whatever reason). But if this something was lawful, we could still analyze the various components of the laws that governed its behavior, e.g. "hmmm ... when we isolate the influence of x, the measurement of the output of the black box seems to correspond roughly to an exponential function of the measurement of x ...". I don't think lawful and reducible are entirely (or even a little) independent. Really, I'm struggling to think of an example where 'lawful' doesn't mean 'reducible'.
0MaxNanasy4yHow is dualism necessarily nonreductive? Materialism says everything is reducible to fundamental interacting physical components, whereas dualism says everything is reducible to fundamental interacting physical and mental/spiritual components.

My point was that vampires were by definition not real - or at least, not understandable - because any time we found something real and understandable that met the definition of a vampire, we would change the definition to exclude it.

But the same exchange might have occurred with something entirely real. We are not in the habit of giving fully adequate definitions, so it is often possible to find counterexamples to the definitions we give, which might prompt the other person to add to the definition to exclude the counterexample. For example:

A: What is a dog?

B: A dog is a four-footed animal that is a popular pet.

A: So a cat is a dog.

B: Dogs bark.

A: So if I teach a cat to bark, it will become a dog.


Constant: with dogs, you can point to examples and say "these animals, and animals closely related to these are dogs".

2SecondWind8y...whereas with vampires, you're stuck pointing to a collection of fictional representations. This restricts certain information-gathering techniques (you can't put a vampire under a microscope; at best, you can use a fictional account of a vampire under a microscope) but shouldn't make the exercise impossible. I'm pretty sure we could convey 'stop sign' without ever letting you observe a real-life stop sign.

I think it comes down to the fact that, if you want to understand the universe around us, the scientific method is consistently successful and supernaturalism is consistently a failure.

If you want to actually prove that scientific method is better, it's very hard to do without reasoning with the scientific method itself, which would be circular logic and thus inconsistent with the scientific method.

So let's just say that, I like to know how the universe works, and if any form of supernaturalism were the best way of doing that, then I would use it. Instead I use the scientific method, because that is what works.

Supernaturalism has other uses, but they are not uses that I subscribe to.

Okay, so here's a dryad. You cut her open, and see white stuff. You take a sample, put it under a microscope, and still see white stuff. You use a scanning tunneling microscope, and still see white stuff. You build an AI and tell it to analyze the sample. The AI converts galaxies into computronium and microscopium, conducts every experiment it can think of, and after a trillion years reports: "The dryad is made of white stuff, and that's all I know. Screw this runaround, what's for dinner?"

But using an outside view of sorts (observed behavior), you can still predict what the dryad will do next. Just like with quarks and with Occam's razor and with prime numbers. And things you haven't reduced yet, but think you can, like people or the LHC.

So, what would you call this dryad?

8Luke_A_Somers8yIf you look at it in an STM, you aren't going to be able to see white stuff, because that isn't sensitive to color. But since you were able to image it at all instead of crashing your tip, you can also tell that dryad insides are electrically conductive. We should be able to determine the resistivity of dryad, as a function of gate voltage, impurity density, magnetic field, etc. No matter what the result is, we now know more about dryad stuff. So I'd suggest that they be insulating instead, as that closes off all those transport experiments.
2Ben Pace8yIf it's causally connected to the physical world, we can test exactly what force(s) it gives out upon other things. We can test how it reflects photons, and all sorts of other things. It would, in the end, have all the physical qualities we attribute to things in this universe, and then it would no longer be mysterious. If it affects us, we can measure that effect. As to your question, what would I call it? I'd probably call it a 'dryad'.
-1MugaSofer8yWell, it's effects might not be mysterious, but it's nature would be.

In that special Cartesian theater, I can picture an even smaller Homunculus pulling the strings of the larger. And so on. Turtles.

Ennui: "In that special Cartesian theater, I can picture an even smaller Homunculus pulling the strings of the larger."

But what if the homunculus were ontologically fundamental?--of course the notion is silly and of course it's false, but I'm not yet convinced that it's literally nonsense on the order of square circles or A-and-not-A. It could be that I just need some intuition-reshaping, but in the meantime I can do nothing else but call it as I see it.

4Perplexed10ySubstance dualism doesn't even require that homunculi be fundamental. It only requires that they be built from mind-stuff. They can be composite agents in the sense of co-operative game theory. Maybe that explains why humans are not perfectly rational. We are controlled by a committee.

Aaron - yes, I know that. It's beside the point.

Z. M. Davis: But if you think about the things that the homunculus tends to do, I think you would find yourself needing to move to levels below the homunculus to do it. To give it a coherent set of actions it is likely to take, and not to take, at any given time, you would have to populate it with wants, with likes, with beliefs, with structures for reasoning about beliefs.

I think eventually you would come to an algorithm of which the homunculus would have to be an instantiation, and you would have to assume that that algorithm was represented somewhere.

I... (read more)

The dictionary has at #1: "of, pertaining to, or being above or beyond what is natural; unexplainable by natural law or phenomena; abnormal."

It seems about right. E.g. travelling into to the past is supernatural.

It's deeper than science being only applicable to natural things -- reason as such is only applicable to natural things. Once you are in the realm of the supernatural anything is possible and the laws of logic don't necessarily hold. You have to just close your mouth and turn off your mind and have faith. Which does not give a teacher a lot of material to work with...

Somebody let me know if I'm pushing my allowed post rate?

Tim: I'm not sure about that definition. Are we saying unexplainable by natural law as understood by humans at the time - ie quantum tunneling was supernatural 100 years ago, but is no longer?

Or would that mean unexplainable by the natural laws that exist? I just don't like this one because then we've simply defined the supernatural out of existence. The set of supernatural things and the set of real things would be non-overlapping by definition.

more pragmatically you can't teach creationism because you wouldn't know which which creationist story to teach? The christian one isn't the only creation story. How about the jain one? the buddhist story? the viking story? the Roman creation story?

One way to go about it would be to assemble the whole canon of stories, and then look about in the world around us to see if there is any evidence that helps support or falsify the different accounts. Maybe one could examine the stories and create some testable predictions from them and .... oh, hang about...

Howmany believers in the supernatural examples given in this post would after reading this post remain believing the supernatural?

About teaching ID as science, isn't it often done before learning how to do scientific research?

People seem to learn about God, bible, while they still believe in Santa .

0JohnH10yThe definition given of supernatural doesn't make sense from my perspective, not even of God. As far as I can tell the definition describes exactly nothing. I still believe in the supernatural in the sense of I know God is real and so are spirits and the devil. However spirit is some form of matter, God has a body of flesh and bones, and both God and the rest of the universe has existed in some form forever. Also God does not violate natural laws, though he does work with higher laws then what we currently know. Clearly not the standard religous claims and while it may seem that I am tailoring these beliefs to meet objections I am not; they are found in the Doctrine and Covenants of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and were given in the 1830-1840's. You asked.
6Eugine_Nier10ySo basically God is a sufficiently advanced alien [http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/SufficientlyAdvancedAlien].
1JohnH10yBasically yes, though we are of the same species as him. Not that being the same species makes him any less of an alien as in the Pearl of Great Price does say that there are other worlds on which humans live. The D&C also basically says there are non-human intelligent aliens out there as well.
3Alicorn10yDo they report to a different deity, so they match, or do they share ours? (My Mormon friends are mostly sick of talking to me about religion. I congratulate you on being noncombative and civil here.)
0JohnH10yThe specific passage is in reference to the strange creatures in Revelation where the creatures do in fact report to our deity. There may be others that do not, if there are such information has not be revealed as of yet, though all things will eventually be revealed so I suppose we will eventually find out in some way, it just might not be until the millennium.
3badger10yDo you know the reference for that? A quick Google search didn't turn up anything. Growing up in the church, I took it as given that there were people growing up on other worlds, but this is the first time I've heard of non-human intelligent beings.
1JohnH10yRevelation 4:6-9 - is where the beasts or creatures are described D&C 77:2-4 - is where it says they are both figurative as well as literal beasts or creatures.
2badger10yThis is non-standard, but not uncommon. My father-in-law will readily say he believes in a non-omniscient, non-omnipotent, naturalistic god. The other extreme – everything is supernatural – is also present in LDS theology. All matter is composed of intelligence and hence under God's command because it recognizes his authority.

I share your difficulty of imagining irreducible mental stuff, but I'll still assign a 10^-3 chance of it being there anyway. Anyone else care to assign a number?

Robin, what's your algorithm for drawing up a number like that? I'd genuinely like to know.

I only ask because you can get 1000-1 on Stoke to win the Premier League this season, and I'd rather have a tenner on that than on 'minds are made of fundamental mind-stuff' at the same odds.

What does it mean for something to be irreducible?

I would ask the same question as Nominull and Tiiba: Why is a fundamentally mental thing different from a fundamentally physical thing like quarks? If we discovered a spirit in a tree that wasn't composed of quarks and leptons, is there a reason we couldn't take that spirit to be a new fundamental particle that behaves in such-and-such a way, just as a down quark is a fundamental particle that behaves in such-and-such a way?

Eliezer: If, on the other hand, a supernatural hypothesis turns out to be true, then presumably you will also discover that it is not ... (read more)

This is why I claim that atheism is an established scientific result. One of the strongest lines of evidence is, indeed, that we have successfully reduced minds and shown the notion of an irreducible mind to be incoherent. Mind as an irreducible simple is basic to all monotheistic religions. Demonstrating something once thought coherent to be incoherent is, of course, one of the strongest lines of evidence in science. Other avenues through which atheism has been established by science include conservation in physics, chemistry and biology (which led direct... (read more)

1TheAncientGeek5yIf we have succefully reduced minds, that only shows that the claim that minds are irreducible is false, not that it is incoherent,

I thought about this a bit more last night. I think the right justification for religion - which is not one that any religious person would consciously agree with - is that it does not take on faith the idea that truth is always good.

Reductionism aims at learning the truth. Religion is inconsistent and false - and that's a feature, not a bug. Its social purpose is to grease the wheels of society where bare truth would create friction.

For example: In Rwanda, people who slaughtered the families of other people in their village, are now getting out of jai... (read more)

3taryneast10yParaphrasing: It's just a lie used to manipulate people into doing what you want them to do against their natural tendencies... but because you're incapable of finding a truth that will actually satisfy them (ie it's a useful lie), it should be kept around.
0shokwave10yThat religion solves problems like "get people to accept daily life with the murderer of their family" really doesn't seem like justification, just a single positive aspect that probably doesn't outweigh the negatives. That there aren't many stronger justifications is also concerning. To wit: The truth tells you not to jump off cliffs. That the truth is of no use to you once you have jumped off a cliff is hardly an argument against it. A useful lie telling you that you can fly will be very useful to you once you jump off a cliff, but that is hardly an argument for the useful lie when you're considering your decision regarding the cliff-jumping.

Eliezer, I think I agree with most of what you say in this post, but unless I misunderstand what you mean by "Bayesian confirmation," I think you're wrong about this bit:

If the "boring view" of reality is correct, then you can never predict anything irreducible because you are reducible. You can never get Bayesian confirmation for a hypothesis of irreducibility, because any prediction you can make is, therefore, something that could also be predicted by a reducible thing, namely your brain.

I think that while you can in this case nev... (read more)

I still seem to be able to envision what things would look like if a form of Cartesian dualism were true.
I'm sure there are people who believe they can envision an immovable object meeting an irresistible force. They do not possess a special ability, they are merely in error.
Our ordinary laws of physics would govern all matter except one or more places deep in the brain, where the laws of physics would be violated where the soul is "pulling the strings" of the body, as it were. These deviations from physics would not happen unlawfully, but r
... (read more)
1Strange710yThe roleplaying game "Exalted" by White Wolf game studio has rules for what happens when an unstoppable force hits an immovable object, as part of a coherent, detailed cosmology where that kind of thing happens on a regular basis. At certain scales, from certain perspectives, it resembles our own world.
1Blueberry10yThis is like saying there are game rules for what happens when a player draws a square circle. Regardless of the game rules, both of those objects can't exist in the same world. Either the object wasn't immovable or the force wasn't unstoppable.
0TheOtherDave10yOr, far more likely, both.

Regardless of the game rules, both of those objects can't exist in the same world. Either the object wasn't immovable or the force wasn't unstoppable.

What if they pass through each other? Then the one doesn't move, and the other doesn't stop.

4Blueberry9yMind. Blown.
1gjm5yThe usual formulation has "irresistible" rather than "unstoppable" and I always took it that (1) "irresistible force" means something that substantially affects everything it interacts with, (2) "immovable object" means something on which no force has a substantial effect, and (3) "meets" means "interacts with in the way forces in this general class interact with objects in this general class". So if they "pass through each other", that means the object remained immovable but the force wasn't in this case irresistible. (It's an amusing answer, though.)
0satt5yYou forgot the citation [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qc6tGS0YOdA&t=70]!

@poke (i think you posted in the wrong thread) -- if you did a survey, limited to scientists, and asked questions like "is general relativity largely correct?', or 'Does DNA encode genes?', you would get near-100% agreement. If you asked 'is atheism true?', you would get a much lower number. Therefore, whatever opinions or arguments might seem convincing to you personally, atheism is not the strongest modern scientific result.

As ought to be obvious, statements about god are not scientific statements. You will not find peer-reviewed scientific liter... (read more)

3AndyCossyleon10yGood post. For a question to receive a specific answer, it must be itself specific. "Does God exist?" is not a specific question and can therefore not receive a specific yes/no/dunno answer. "Does Yahweh exist?" on the other hand, is quite specific and requires the equally specific answer of "No."
2orthonormal10yThere are some perfectly well-defined generalizations, for instance "Was our portion of this universe designed in detail by an intelligent mind?" (Of course, I take the Simulation Hypothesis seriously enough to answer either "Maybe" or "Yes and No", though further well-defined questions do distinguish between that hypothesis and more traditionally theist ones.)

You can say that it makes no sense to talk about non-natural, non-material entities in any way, but as I pointed out before, we do it all the time for mathematical entities and I assume nobody here has a problem with that.
Mathematical entities are not non-natural or non-material.

Why do you say that you find people who are certain they know what 'god' means amusing, then make it clear that you believe you know what 'god' means? Do you find yourself amusing, then, and in error?

One of the strongest lines of evidence is, indeed, that we have successfully reduced minds. . .

Just what exactly are you referring to here?

"Mind as an irreducible simple is basic to all monotheistic religions." - poke

That is a wonderful definition of religion. And I think it covers all religions, not just monotheistic, which is why it could be so useful. Most definitions of religion have trouble covering the non-theistic versions, such as Buddhism and Jainism, which yours does cover. ("Mind as an irreducible simple" would be required to make their reincarnation systems work.)

Atheists don't know what god means - it is meaningless.

0MaxNanasy4yAIUI the mind being something other than an irreducible entity is a fundamental principle of Buddhism (this is part of the anatta ("not-self") concept)

God is a shapeshifting horror from the outer beyond that constantly adapts its properties to whatever is most convenient given the argument currently being considered.

The dictionary doesn't specify that. Often it won't make much difference (assuming our understanding of physics is pretty good), and other times it would be clear from the context ("the ancients would have regarded human flight as supernatural").

The point is that "supernatural" has an established meaning that is supported well by the etymology of the word. I don't see much of a case for attempting to redefine the term it to mean something relatively arcane which the etymology gives no indication of.


Most sane and intelligent people with religious tendencies (and there are many, although they don't seem to get much press) understand that if "god" means anything, it is a pointer towards something unknown and perhaps unknowable, and arguing about whether it exists in the physical sense is missing the point completely.

This is just a version of my second option available to the theist. There's a knowable "physical" world and an unknowable one beyond it. There's no reason to believe this is the case. Moreover, if you believed ... (read more)

Mathematical entities are material? Do tell. What are they made of? How do you determine their position and mass? Why do you say that you find people who are certain they know what 'god' means amusing, then make it clear that you believe you know what 'god' means?

I thought I made it clear that I don't, but my apologies if I expressed myself in too subtle a fashion for you.

Let me try again. People deploy the term "god" in different ways and mean different things by it. I'm distinguishing two different broad classes of meaning. One set of mea... (read more)

Eliezer, your characterization of religion is not generally accurate, as evidenced by the fact that not all religious persons posit an irreducibly complex God. As one example, Mormons posit a material God that became God through organizing existing matter according to existing laws.

On the other hand, I wonder, do you attribute irreducible complexity to quarks?

So... is the idea here, that creationism could be true, but even if it were true, you wouldn't be >>allowed to teach it in science class, because science is only about "natural" things?

If god(s) exist and (s)he/they/it created the universe and we possessed irrefutable evidence for both of those things, then s(he)/they/it would be "natural", and so, yes, you would be allowed to teach this in science class in that case.

Let me try again. People deploy the term "god" in different ways and mean different things by it.

... (read more)

Phil Goetz, could you elaborate on the psychology of mythical creatures? That some creatures are "spiritual" sounds to me like a plausible distinction. I count vampires, but not unicorns. To me, a unicorn is just another chimera. Why do you think they're more special than mermaids? magic powers? How much of a consensus do you think exists?

means something else that is hard to define, certainly hard to define in the context of a blog flamewar, but does not contradict the findings of science.

The findings of science are almost irrelevent. The means justify the ends. The usage of concepts that are not clearly and properly defined is incompatible with scientific methodology, and thus incompatible with science.

No sane, rational, and sufficiently-educated person puts forward arguments incompatible with science.

0DilGreen10yThe problem with this statement is that it puts 99.999% of everyone 'beyond the pale'. It disallows meaningful conversations about things which have huge functional impacts on all humans, but about which science has little of use or coherence to say. It cripples conversation about things which our current science deems impossible, without allowing for the certainty that key aspects of what is currently accepted science will be superseded in the future. In other words, it is an example of a reasonable sounding thing to say that is almost perfectly useless. You have argued yourself into a box. I would suggest that no sane, rational and sufficiently-educated person ascribes zero probability to irrational seeming propositions.

poke: There's a knowable "physical" world and an unknowable one beyond it. There's no reason to believe this is the case.

How would you know? Surely there are a great many things that are unknown and unknowable. The idea that it constitutes a separate "world" is your phrase, not mine.

Moreover, if you believed something like this, you would be able to say "I'm an atheist about the physical world" and we could all agree on that and discuss whether talk of "something beyond the physical world" is coherent.

Er, no. You ... (read more)

2bigjeff510yI don't know if there is cake in the asteroid belt, and given current technology such a thing is, at this time, unknowable. That doesn't give credence to the absurd notion that there is cake in the asteroid belt. I have no reason to believe this is the case. The "supernatural" is a whole lot more complicated and a whole lot less discoverable than cake.


"- my tentative analogy between mathematical objects and supernatural entities"

By the Chair of Jacob Klein! That part. Right there. No. The Eide are not that. The Eide are what thinking thinks about, the Forms (Eide) the Mind (Nous) Shines (phaino) Upon. They are "seen" only in the light of the intellect. Supernatural entities - I guess you mean ghosts or souls or such - are not. . .ack! English sucks sometimes. . .

This is very difficult, as English doesn't have good terms to equal the Greek. German might be better. WTF. Ghosts ... (read more)

Frelkins -- thanks for the references. I am pretty philosophically illiterate and it wouldn't surprise me at all to find out that I'm reinventing stuff that has been around for thousands of years.

I did not mean to imply that supernatural entities are identical in every way to mathematical entities; I'm just using mathematical entities as a club to beat up a certain sort of simple-minded materialism. It turns out that even science geeks talk about immaterial entities all the time. That's interesting.

You are right, this is probably not the place to discus... (read more)

could you elaborate on the psychology of mythical creatures? That some creatures are "spiritual" sounds to me like a plausible distinction. I count vampires, but not unicorns. To me, a unicorn is just another chimera. Why do you think they're more special than mermaids? magic powers? How much of a consensus do you think exists?
Sorry I missed this!

I think it may have to do with how heavy a load of symbolism the creature carries. Unicorns were used a lot to symbolize purity, and acquired magical and non-magical properties appropriate to that sym... (read more)

To Phil, who asked for a definition of "vampire":

A vampire is a person possessed by the lust for vengeance. That spirit is notably difficult to kill or banish. The young and innocent are particularly susceptible. Once you invite it into your home, it can always return. Of those completely possessed by it, one can say "on reflection, there's no one there". It thrives in the unexamined dark and cannot abide the full light of day.

[-][anonymous]11y 0

This post seems to be saying this:

"Our universe is reductionist. [Other reasoning.] Therefore, we cannot imagine what a non-reductionist universe would be like."

If we cannot imagine what a non-reductionist universe would be like, it is impossible to come to the conclusion that our universe is reductionist.

I remember, when first reading this article, that it was really convincing and compelling. I looked it up again because I wanted to be able to make the argument myself, and now I find that I don't understand how you can get from "if the staid conventional normal boring understanding of physics and the brain is correct" to "there's no way in principle that a human being can concretely envision, and derive testable experimental predictions about, an alternate universe in which things are irreducibly mental." That seems like too large a jump for me. Any help?

I have to wonder if your characterization of people who deny reductionism is really correct. I agree most of them are probably confused and do not have a coherent model in the first place - certainly actual non-reductionism is a confusion - but I'm not certain all of them are confused in the way you say.

From my experience it seems that the claims of the people who deny "reductionism" could be coherently understood if we assume that they are actually confused about what reductionism actually consists of, and that they are not denying actual reduc... (read more)

1TheOtherDave10yMm. It makes sense, but I don't think it's on-point. Up to a point, I agree with you. The Bohr model of the atom posits a lowest-level description that appears to us now to be "high-level", as you say, but it would not be fair to dismiss Bohr as a denier of reductionism on that basis. Similarly, if 22nd-century physics demonstrates that our current ontology is similarly confused, and there is a yet-more-parsimonious explanation that is consistent with observed data, it would not be fair to claim we deny reductionism. It's unfair precisely because it elides the difference between (on the one hand) not being able to analyze something in terms of its component parts and (on the other) rejecting in principle any such analysis. EY seems to be talking here about people who do the latter... who would deny that anything explainable could be their God, whatever surface properties it turned out to have. You seem to be talking about both groups at once. To put this a different way... suppose Alice, Bob, and Cindy all worship a dryad, who is either Tiiba's dryad [http://lesswrong.com/lw/tv/excluding_the_supernatural/n5z?c=1] or an analog made of quarks, and a scientist comes along to determine which it is. Alice insists that studying the dryad's composition isn't possible/permitted. Bob confidently predicts that the dryad will all be whitestuff. Cindy shrugs and doesn't care; she makes the choice to worship based on surface-level considerations that don't depend on whether it's quarks or whitestuff. Alice and Bob both make supernatural claims. Cindy isn't making a supernatural claim at all, by this post's definitions. You argue that Bob is just claiming that some irreducible components are complicated, and the dryad happens to be one of them, and that this is perfectly compatible with reductionism (albeit perhaps trivially so)... even if Bob doesn't call himself a reductionist. And that's true enough, as far as it goes. Bob is also admitting that his supernatural cla

Reminds me of Conversational Atheist posting that “Christians rarely realize the very real problem that arises for them once “supernatural explanations” are on the table”. Allowing them opens the floodgates to all sorts of alternative explanations for miracles.

I'm sorry for posting such a pointless comment, but how do we change how the comments are sorted? I can see a Sort By: Old thing above the comments, but nothing happens when I click on it. Is there somewhere I can change settings, or something?
Thank you.

2TheOtherDave8yI think what's going on here is that older posts simply don't have this feature enabled, I assume because the feature depends on the comments having been stored in a particular way. Recent posts have a "Sort By: " menu there.

If the "boring view" of reality is correct, then you can never predict anything irreducible because you are reducible. You can never get Bayesian confirmation for a hypothesis of irreducibility, because any prediction you can make is, therefore, something that could also be predicted by a reducible thing, namely your brain.

Some boxes you really can't think outside. If our universe really is Turing computable, we will never be able to concretely envision anything that isn't Turing-computable—no matter how many levels of halting oracle hierarchy

... (read more)
0[anonymous]7yThere's a difference between an existence proof and a constructive proof. We can talk about existence proofs for, "Here's what happens when we hook a magical Halting Oracle to a Turing Machine and run certain programs." We do not have any constructive proof of how a Halting Oracle would behave. Just because you can say, "Imagine we had a thing with these properties" doesn't mean you know how to build such a thing.

If our universe really is Turing computable, we will never be able to concretely envision anything that isn't Turing-computable

Sure we can. We can use a Turing complete language to program a crappier, non-Turing complete language that runs within our existing Turing complete framework. You've described how to convince you that 1+1=3, after all.

Suppose that a 747 had a fundamental physical existence apart from the quarks making up the 747.

What experimental observations would you expect to make, if you found yourself in such a universe?

Well, for star... (read more)