BHTV: Yudkowsky & Adam Frank on "religious experience"

by Eliezer Yudkowsky1 min read23rd Mar 200935 comments

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BHTV episode with myself and Adam Frank, author of "The Constant Fire", on whether or not religious experience is compatible with the scientific experience, or worth trying to salvage.

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  • Joseph Campbell (1904 – 1987), American mythologist, writer, and lecturer best known for his work in the fields of comparative mythology and comparative religion.
  • John W Campbell (1910 – 1971), editor of Astounding Science Fiction (later called Analog Science Fiction and Fact), generally credited with shaping the so-called Golden Age of Science Fiction.

Well that explains a lot.

Every time Eliezer gets very, very still while someone else is speaking on Bloggingheads, I think:

"Ah-ha! I knew it, he's a robot!"

or

"Is that part of the art? Be absolutely motionless so that more blood can be redirected from various muscles to the brain?"

or

"Great, Eliezer was disconnected and I'm seeing a frozen video frame."

Myself, I was thinking it's a good thing Eliezer restricted himself to text interaction during his "AI in the box" games; otherwise, anyone would have let him out after enduring five minutes of his motionless staring.

I really enjoy listening to these Bloggingheads episodes, but Eliezer can be unnerving to watch because of this trait.

I hate to do it, but I'll make another superficial suggestion because it may affect people's impression of you. Don't button the top button of your shirt unless you're wearing a tie. Shirts with somewhat larger collars are probably better.

It would be better if your camera was zoomed out a little.

I take it that a bookshelves backdrop, politician style, would be overdoing it? :-)

[-][anonymous]12y 1

It's a Mentat thing. Don't let it bother you ;-P

28:20, Adam Frank makes the point that

This ideal of pure reason is a poor substitute for people in their lives.

Which I didn't hear a good answer to from Eliezer. In fact, I think that this was probably the most important question in the whole BH talk, if not the most important thing I've heard on LW since Anna Salamon's excellent Cached Selves article.

Other than this, Adam Frank mostly talks nonsense.

Overall, a good showing from EY. Some important insights along the lines of "lets consider throwing out all of the religion stuff and starting over"

This ideal of pure reason is a poor substitute for people in their lives. Amplify?

Many human beings that I meet go around with a lot of false beliefs, dark side epistemology, negative (false) beliefs about the out-group or the ideological enemy, and even religious and spiritual/mysterious nonsense. Why?

My opinion is that people do this to make themselves feel good. If you're not very clever, it probably makes you feel better about yourself to claim that "all truth is relative" and "science can only go so far". If you have a shitty job, it makes you feel better to claim that "capitalism is a conspiracy to make the super rich even richer and provides no benefit to the average person".

My uncle spouts the most outrageous nonsense about quantum physics, claiming that it enables telepathy. For me (a trained physicist) it is positively painful to listen to him lecturing me about how quantum physics lets related people read each others' minds. Why does he do it? Because it makes him feel good. His life isn't so rosy; he's had a few big blows and lost status within his community and he's too old to do much about it. The instrumental value of an accurate map is low in his case, and the happiness value of nonsense outweighs it.

In many cases, I suspect that people adopt false beliefs and the ensuing dark-side for short term emotional gain, but in the long term the instrumental loss outweighs this.

Which I didn't hear a good answer to from Eliezer.

  • not that I have a fully formed better answer myself, though Joy in the merely real type material is at least a start.

In many cases, I suspect that people adopt false beliefs and the ensuing dark-side for short term emotional gain, but in the long term the instrumental loss outweighs this.

Not only this.

If people never adopt the map that corresponds the most to its territory, they'll never have an accurate cost-benefit analysis of adopting false beliefs.

Maybe, in some cases, false beliefs make you better off. The problem is you'll never know that, unless you first adopt reason.

This is true, but I suspect it is too subtle a point for the average joe to grasp. People are surprisingly dumb.

A secular source of hope and psychological boosting would make the case for rationalism so compelling that even joe public might see its merit.

In many cases, I suspect that people adopt false beliefs and the ensuing dark-side for short term emotional gain, but in the long term the instrumental loss outweighs this.

That may be one way of adopting false beliefs the first set of false beliefs. Once the base has been laid (perhaps containing many flaws to hide the falseness), then in evaluating a new belief, it doesn't need to have short term emotional gain to be accepted, as long as it fits in with the current network of beliefs.

When I think of this, I think of missionaries, promising that having faith in God with help them through the bad times. Then after they accept that, move onto the usual discussion of Hell and if only you do what they say, you'll be fine.

Random thoughts:

I couldn't do that debate, I would have exploded with frustration and indignation much earlier, and sat there saying "But what on Earth do you mean by that ? You're saying all these things and they don't mean anything!"

The thinker namedropping alone would be enough to drive me crazy.

I'm sure that it seems to Frank that he won that debate.

The map/territory misunderstanding is absolutely central to all the errors he makes.

Throwing out religion would be like throwing out folk medicine - you lose all the traditional knowledge about which plants are good for what. In both cases, it's best to squeeze out the cultural juices before consigning to the dustbin of history.

But practicing religion is as disastrous as practicing folk medicine. You may use both as raw material, as better-than-noise source of hypotheses, but not as out-of-the-box applicable techniques.

According to most of the studies I have seen, religious people are systematically more healthy than unbelievers. Also, atheists are one of the most distrusted American minority groups, according to a recent survey. "Disastrous" seems like a bit of a curious synopsis in the light of such results.

Believing religion is disastrously antithetical to epistemic rationality. Practicing religion is potentially quite useful from an instrumental rationality standpoint.

Presumably, epistemic rationality only suffers if you believe untrue things.

The whole idea that religion is concerned with belief is quite a western one. Look at some of the eastern religions, and they are more concerned with what you do and how you live - and do not necessarily place an emphasis on faith.

I'm not sure who you're addressing this to.

It appeared to me that "squeezing out the cultural juices" was precisely what Eliezer was doing when he talked about the Old Testament, the kind of society it originated in, the way people have always tried to irrationally defend religious beliefs, and the process by which science has repeatedly devastated those defenses.

Freeing ourselves from beliefs doesn't mean ridding the world of all of the related literature and artifacts. I've never heard anybody advocate the complete elimination of all knowledge that was ever believed in religiously (any more than not practicing folk medicine means eradicating those species of plants, along with whatever information there may be about how many people lived/died because/despite of their application).

And what's wrong with being consigned to history? That's where scientific knowledge tends to end up, after all.

Folk medicine is demonstrably useful, even if it's chock full of superstition and nonsense.

What benefits actually derive from religion that make it not worth throwing out before it's picked over?

Check Buddhism, Taoism and Hinduism. Numerous valuable things in there - including yoga, meditation, and lots of Taoist health practices.

Can you justify that tradition ought to contain knowledge? Folk medicine has a very crude optimizing drift - do it wrong and the patient dies, and some cures can be obvious. I don't see even that in religion. For what reason ought it to produce better results than noise?

You are doubing there are things of value in religions? Many religions contain things which have proved to be valuable in modern times. Consider Hinduism and Hatha Yoga, for example. Civilisation didn't get Hatha Yoga because science rediscovered it - it got it from the Hindu religious tradition.

Sure, so let's dump the religion and keep the yoga.

This is a very old post, but I have to say I finally get what Douglas Adams was talking about in the Hitchhikers' Guide. I laughed like everyone else when people discovered the answer to the fundamental Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything without actually knowing the question - but I never spent an hour listening to someone who took it completely seriously. Frank seems to be asking a question without asking a question. Does he understand that "the question of Being" is in fact a noun phrase, not a question? It is unanswerable in the same way "the question of Bunny Rabbits" is unanswerable. What about Bunny Rabbits? Where's the verb, Mr. Frank? If you found the answer to your question, you would not even be able to recognize it as such.

It seems to me that Adam Frank doesn't do himself any favors in this debate by linking "spiritual endeavor" to religion. While one can argue that "spiritual endeavor" is the basis on which most religions are founded, if one wishes to debate the subject with an atheist it is probably better to not bring up religion at all.

You're more likely to have a fruitful conversation if you discuss "understanding the true nature of subjective reality" rather than "spiritual endeavor", "the overview effect" rather than "religious experiences", and neurological research rather than the Bible.

But even then it is probably pointless. The Buddha says that a student only obtains proof of the validity of his teachings when he becomes a Sotāpanna. Before that, the Buddha's teachings must be taken on blind faith -- not something any self-respecting skeptic is going to do.

Eliezer i so much younger than I expected!

I hope you email with him about the quantum physics point, and post the result of the conversation.