I spoke yesterday of my conversation with a nominally Orthodox Jewish woman who vigorously defended the assertion that she believed in God, while seeming not to actually believe in God at all.
While I was questioning her about the benefits that she thought came from believing in God, I introduced the Litany of Tarski—which is actually an infinite family of litanies, a specific example being:
If the sky is blue
I desire to believe "the sky is blue"
If the sky is not blue
I desire to believe "the sky is not blue".
"This is not my philosophy," she said to me.
"I didn't think it was," I replied to her. "I'm just asking—assuming that God does not exist, and this is known, then should you still believe in God?"
She hesitated. She seemed to really be trying to think about it, which surprised me.
"So it's a counterfactual question..." she said slowly.
I thought at the time that she was having difficulty allowing herself to visualize the world where God does not exist, because of her attachment to a God-containing world.
Now, however, I suspect she was having difficulty visualizing a contrast between the way the world would look if God existed or did not exist, because all her thoughts were about her belief in God, but her causal network modelling the world did not contain God as a node. So she could easily answer "How would the world look different if I didn't believe in God?", but not "How would the world look different if there was no God?"
She didn't answer that question, at the time. But she did produce a counterexample to the Litany of Tarski:
She said, "I believe that people are nicer than they really are."
I tried to explain that if you say, "People are bad," that means you believe people are bad, and if you say, "I believe people are nice", that means you believe you believe people are nice. So saying "People are bad and I believe people are nice" means you believe people are bad but you believe you believe people are nice.
I quoted to her:
"If there were a verb meaning 'to believe falsely', it would not have any
significant first person, present indicative."
She said, smiling, "Yes, I believe people are nicer than, in fact, they are. I just thought I should put it that way for you."
"I reckon Granny ought to have a good look at you, Walter," said Nanny. "I reckon
your mind's all tangled up like a ball of string what's been dropped."
—Terry Pratchett, Maskerade
And I can type out the words, "Well, I guess she didn't believe that her reasoning ought to be consistent under reflection," but I'm still having trouble coming to grips with it.
I can see the pattern in the words coming out of her lips, but I can't understand the mind behind on an empathic level. I can imagine myself into the shoes of baby-eating aliens and the Lady 3rd Kiritsugu, but I cannot imagine what it is like to be her. Or maybe I just don't want to?
This is why intelligent people only have a certain amount of time (measured in subjective time spent thinking about religion) to become atheists. After a certain point, if you're smart, have spent time thinking about and defending your religion, and still haven't escaped the grip of Dark Side Epistemology, the inside of your mind ends up as an Escher painting.
(One of the other few moments that gave her pause—I mention this, in case you have occasion to use it—is when she was talking about how it's good to believe that someone cares whether you do right or wrong—not, of course, talking about how there actually is a God who cares whether you do right or wrong, this proposition is not part of her religion—
And I said, "But I care whether you do right or wrong. So what you're saying is that this isn't enough, and you also need to believe in something above humanity that cares whether you do right or wrong." So that stopped her, for a bit, because of course she'd never thought of it in those terms before. Just a standard application of the nonstandard toolbox.)
Later on, at one point, I was asking her if it would be good to do anything differently if there definitely was no God, and this time, she answered, "No."
"So," I said incredulously, "if God exists or doesn't exist, that has absolutely no effect on how it would be good for people to think or act? I think even a rabbi would look a little askance at that."
Her religion seems to now consist entirely of the worship of worship. As the true believers of older times might have believed that an all-seeing father would save them, she now believes that belief in God will save her.
After she said "I believe people are nicer than they are," I asked, "So, are you consistently surprised when people undershoot your expectations?" There was a long silence, and then, slowly: "Well... am I surprised when people... undershoot my expectations?"
I didn't understand this pause at the time. I'd intended it to suggest that if she was constantly disappointed by reality, then this was a downside of believing falsely. But she seemed, instead, to be taken aback at the implications of not being surprised.
I now realize that the whole essence of her philosophy was her belief that she had deceived herself, and the possibility that her estimates of other people were actually accurate, threatened the Dark Side Epistemology that she had built around beliefs such as "I benefit from believing people are nicer than they actually are."
She has taken the old idol off its throne, and replaced it with an explicit worship of the Dark Side Epistemology that was once invented to defend the idol; she worships her own attempt at self-deception. The attempt failed, but she is honestly unaware of this.
And so humanity's token guardians of sanity (motto: "pooping your deranged little party since Epicurus") must now fight the active worship of self-deception—the worship of the supposed benefits of faith, in place of God.
This actually explains a fact about myself that I didn't really understand earlier—the reason why I'm annoyed when people talk as if self-deception is easy, and why I write entire blog posts arguing that making a deliberate choice to believe the sky is green, is harder to get away with than people seem to think.
It's because—while you can't just choose to believe the sky is green—if you don't realize this fact, then you actually can fool yourself into believing that you've successfully deceived yourself.
And since you then sincerely expect to receive the benefits that you think come from self-deception, you get the same sort of placebo benefit that would actually come from a successful self-deception.
So by going around explaining how hard self-deception is, I'm actually taking direct aim at the placebo benefits that people get from believing that they've deceived themselves, and targeting the new sort of religion that worships only the worship of God.
Will this battle, I wonder, generate a new list of reasons why, not belief, but belief in belief, is itself a good thing? Why people derive great benefits from worshipping their worship? Will we have to do this over again with belief in belief in belief and worship of worship of worship? Or will intelligent theists finally just give up on that line of argument?
I wish I could believe that no one could possibly believe in belief in belief in belief, but the Zombie World argument in philosophy has gotten even more tangled than this and its proponents still haven't abandoned it.
I await the eager defenses of belief in belief in the comments, but I wonder if anyone would care to jump ahead of the game and defend belief in belief in belief? Might as well go ahead and get it over with.
I don't know how well you know this person, so my advice may be unnecessary. But your post gives me the impression that you need to be much more careful about speculating on how her mind works. I think that it's a red flag when you write first that
. . . and then proceed to make apparently confident declarations about how her mind works, such as... (read more)
My hypothesis is that she simply meant, "It makes me happy to pretend that people are nicer than they really are."
I'll go one step further and defend belief in belief, infinitely regressed. ;-) As you point out, the placebo effect here is simply the expectation of a positive result -- and it applies equally at any level of recursion here.
Humans only need a convincing argument for predicting a positive result, not a rational proof of that prediction! Once the positive result is expected, we get positive emotions activated every time we think of anything linked to that result, leading to self-fulfilling prophecies on every level.
This being the case, one might question whether it's rational to disbelieve in belief, if you have nothing equally beneficial to replace it with.
When it comes to external results, sure, it makes sense to have greater prediction accuracy. But for interior events -- like confidence, creativity, self-esteem, etc. -- biasing one's predictions positively is a significant advantage, as it stabilizes what would otherwise be an unstable system of runaway feedback loops.
People whose systems are negatively biased, on the other hand, can get seriously stuck. They basically hit one little setback and become paralyzed because of runaway negative self-fulfilling prophecy.
(I've be... (read more)
My boyfriend was once feeling a bit tired and unmotivated for a few months (probably mild depression), and he also wanted to stop eating dairy for ethical reasons. He felt that his illness was partly mentally generated. He decided that he was allergic to dairy, and that dairy was causing his illness. Then he stopped eating dairy and felt better!
He told me all this, and also told me that he usually believes he is actually allergic to dairy, and it is hard to remember that he is not. When someone asks how he knows he is allergic to dairy, he says something plausible and false ("The doctor ran blood tests") and believes it if he doesn't stop and think too much.
He believes he is not allergic to dairy, but he believes he believes he is allergic to dairy? Belief-in-belief. But he recognizes this and explained it to me -- so that's a belief-in-belief-in-belief? But it helped him get over his mental illness and stop eating dairy... that's winning.
In general I would say a b... (read more)
If I had been talking to the person you were talking to, I might have said something like this:
Why are you deceiving yourself into believing Orthodox Judaism as opposed to something else? If you, in fact, are deriving a benefit from deceiving yourself, while at the same time being aware that you are deceiving yourself, then why haven't you optimized your deceptions into something other than an off-the-shelf religion by now? Have you ever really asked yourself the question: "What is the set of things that I would derive the most benefit from falsely believing?" Now if you really think you can make your life better by deceiving yourself, and you haven't really thought carefully about what the exact set of things about which you would be better off deceiving yourself is, then it would seem unlikely that you've actually got the optimal set of self-deceptions in your brain. In particular, this means that it's probably a bad idea to deceive yourself into thinking that your present set of self deceptions is optimal, so please don't do that.
OK, now do you agree that finding the optimal set of self deceptions is a good idea? OK, good, but I have to give you one very important... (read more)
Consistent consciously intended self-deception may be hard. But our minds are designed to produce self-deceptions all the time without us noticing. Just don't look behind the curtain and "let it be", "go with the flow" etc. and you can be as self-deceived as most folks.
"I believe that people are nicer than they really are." That part made me ponder. Because, actually, it's something I believe, too. So I froze for a while, and looked at that belief. Do I have Escher loops in my belief networks ? Well, maybe, I'm far from being a perfect bayesian, but I can't allow myself to stop here.
My first justification for that thought was : I don't refer to the same thing in the two parts of the sentence. A bit like "sound" can refer to acoustic vibrations, or to a perception, and if you switch from one to the other into the same sentence, you can make a sentence that seems self-contradicting but is still valid.
People is a vast group. Nice or not is a characteristic of a person. So, to attribute "niceness" to people in general, you've to make an aggregate value. There are many ways to make an aggregate value, for example, mean and median. So that sentence could mean something like "I believe the median people to be nicer than the average people" (implying a minority of very un-nice people who drive the average backward, but don't change the median).
But then I thought "Hey, stop. You're trying to find excuses here.... (read more)
I don't quite agree there. Saying "I believe the median people to be nicer than the average people" indicates that you believe that you believe it but it doesn't indicate that you don't actually believe it. You could say it is neutral with respect to whether or not you actually believe it but not that it indicates outright that you don't.
I disagree. In general, saying "I believe x" is evidence that you believe x, and therefore cannot be evidence that you do not believe x. I would be interested to see evidence that people usually use "I believe x" in such a way that it can be taken as evidence that one does not believe x.
I believe that people usually use "I believe x" instead of "x" in cases where they want to stress the possibility, however small, that they are wrong. Usual caveats for religious and "I believe in" statements, as well as unrelated senses of 'believe', apply.
"I wish I could believe that no one could possibly believe in belief in belief in belief..."
You wish you could believe Eliezer? Is this a dliberate stroke of irony or a subconcious hint at the fact that you do have an empathic understanding of the thought processes behind tailoring your own beliefs?
Hrm... While on the one hand I can look at her position and basically react with a "your mind is entirely alien to me", on the other hand, I can actually imagine being in that state.
That does NOT mean, of course, that it is a reasonable state to be in, but it does seem to be the sort of state that my mind can support.
I guess the basic key is that human minds aren't necessarally naturally consistent. So we can end up in actual inconsistent states. Including states a bit confused about consistency itself.
A bit more of a personal example would be a ... (read more)
I am so much a one-level person that my sense of social insincerity has atrophied.
Rational straight man syndrome. So much a truth-finder you forget how to not speak the truth.
"And so humanity's token guardians of sanity (motto: "pooping your deranged little party since Epicurus") must now fight the active worship of self-deception - the worship of the supposed benefits of faith, in place of God."
You should have spent much more of your time in this debate convincing your tangled friend that, if she were to abandon her rel... (read more)
As a theist, I don't believe in God because I perceive some positive benefit from that belief. My experiences and perceptions point to the existence of God. Of course those experiences and perceptions may be inaccurate and are subject to my own interpretations, so I can't claim that my beliefs are rational. I accept on an intellectual level that my belief could be wrong. This doesn't seem to enable me to stop believing.
However, I am involved in a religious community because there are positive benefits -- chiefly that of being able to compare notes with o... (read more)
I know some people who are like the woman you describe, my own folks might be like that to some extent. I became atheist pretty early on. So I'm not sure that adults who believe in belief are likely to be passing that along to their kids, if they even try. In my case, I put on a show for a while, but when I stopped it was no big deal.
If these people are able to agree with a scientific worldview and not be obstructionist on things like stem cell, but simply want to add "and I believe there is a god" to the end of it, fine. Seems like a natural step towards the end of belief in god entirely.
To further illustrate the point that self-deception isn't easy: if believe you're shy, you can't just make yourself believe you're not shy.
Maybe you can make yourself believe that you believe that you're not shy, but I don't think you'll reap many benefits from placebo effect - you'll still get nervous when you want to speak up or go talk to a girl you don't know or whatnot. You can't argue yourself logically into self-confidence.
Why destroy placebo effects? According to some stuff Robin Hanson points to, it seems that most of medicine might consist of placebos. Aren't you fighting what wins in favor of the truth?
Just a data point. I spent over twenty (20) years, thinking multiple hours every week about subjects related to my religion. I was deeply confused, but I needed too badly for it to be true to go earnestly looking for evidence that is was false. Which reminds me of another Yudkowsky quote:
If my religion w... (read more)
It sounds to me that she simply is using a different definition of "to believe". If she says "I believe people are nicer than they are," I think she means something like, "I choose to act as if people are nicer than they really are, because it is consonant with my sense of morality to do so." It's choosing to give people the benefit of the doubt, knowing they probably don't deserve it.
Placebo effects from 'belief in (false) beliefs' only work as long as self-deception is maintainable.
I think the point at which self-deception ceases to work is when you can consciously be aware of it breaking your causal models of the world. Highly intelligent people, or anyone for that matter, cannot continue to deceive themselves into believing in god or unregulated markets, or whatever complex concept take your pick, if you explicitly show how it breaks a model they cannot disagree with. Controversial topics of the day like belief in god, public pol... (read more)
Voltaire, using rationalist arguments, concluded that “if God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him”. So could it be that adhering to facts in all situations is essentially an irrational position?
Consider the following statements:
1) Rational humans (unlike rational AI) should aim to be happy.
2) Rational humans should not believe fanciful notions unsupported by empirical evidence.
3) Empirical studies (e.g. http://www.lifesitenews.com/ldn/2008/mar/08031807.html) suggest that humans who believe in such notions are more likely to be happier.
The... (read more)
This is a perfect example of the web that builds itself around even one confusion of a value statement and a factual statement. I fear we all have these lurking.
I empathize with her here. I believe that it is in my advantage to act towards people the way I would act if they were nicer than they actually are. I'll try to parse that out. Let's say Alice is talking to Bob. Cindy, at a different time, also talks to Bob. Bob is a jerk; we assume he is not nice.
I believe the following five things.
(1) Barcelona will not win the Champions League.
(2) Manchester U will not win the Champions League.
(3) Chelsea will not win the Champions League.
(4) Liverpool will not win the Champions League.
(5) I falsely believe one of the statements (1), (2), (3) and (4).
This seems to me like a reasonable counterexample to Wittgenstein's doctrine.
You need to work with probabilities, and then make statements about your expected Bayes-score instead of truth or falsity; then you'll be consistent. I have a post on this but I can't remember what it's called.
< "Pooping your deranged little party since Epicurus."
I love that. Did you pick it up somewhere or do I credit you with it?
If you recognize that, in certain terms, believing certain things has positive instrumental results even if they're not true, why can't you simply abolish the false beliefs and just create those results directly?
Human brains are (loosely speaking) Universal Turing Machines - they can emulate any computation. So if we're looking for a particular set of results, we're not tied to a way to reach them that's invalid. There's always a valid path that gets us to where we want to be.
I Believe this will be the next form of religion.