The earliest account I know of a scientific experiment is, ironically, the story of Elijah and the priests of Baal.
The people of Israel are wavering between Jehovah and Baal, so Elijah announces that he will conduct an experiment to settle it—quite a novel concept in those days! The priests of Baal will place their bull on an altar, and Elijah will place Jehovah’s bull on an altar, but neither will be allowed to start the fire; whichever God is real will call down fire on His sacrifice. The priests of Baal serve as control group for Elijah—the same wooden fuel, the same bull, and the same priests making invocations, but to a false god. Then Elijah pours water on his altar—ruining the experimental symmetry, but this was back in the early days—to signify deliberate acceptance of the burden of proof, like needing a 0.05 significance level. The fire comes down on Elijah’s altar, which is the experimental observation. The watching people of Israel shout “The Lord is God!”—peer review.
And then the people haul the 450 priests of Baal down to the river Kishon and slit their throats. This is stern, but necessary. You must firmly discard the falsified hypothesis, and do so swiftly, before it can generate excuses to protect itself. If the priests of Baal are allowed to survive, they will start babbling about how religion is a separate magisterium which can be neither proven nor disproven.
Back in the old days, people actually believed their religions instead of just believing in them. The biblical archaeologists who went in search of Noah’s Ark did not think they were wasting their time; they anticipated they might become famous. Only after failing to find confirming evidence—and finding disconfirming evidence in its place—did religionists execute what William Bartley called the retreat to commitment, “I believe because I believe.”
Back in the old days, there was no concept of religion’s being a separate magisterium. The Old Testament is a stream-of-consciousness culture dump: history, law, moral parables, and yes, models of how the universe works—like the universe being created in six days (which is a metaphor for the Big Bang), or rabbits chewing their cud. (Which is a metaphor for . . .)
Back in the old days, saying the local religion “could not be proven” would have gotten you burned at the stake. One of the core beliefs of Orthodox Judaism is that God appeared at Mount Sinai and said in a thundering voice, “Yeah, it’s all true.” From a Bayesian perspective that’s some darned unambiguous evidence of a superhumanly powerful entity. (Although it doesn’t prove that the entity is God per se, or that the entity is benevolent—it could be alien teenagers.) The vast majority of religions in human history—excepting only those invented extremely recently—tell stories of events that would constitute completely unmistakable evidence if they’d actually happened. The orthogonality of religion and factual questions is a recent and strictly Western concept. The people who wrote the original scriptures didn’t even know the difference.
The Roman Empire inherited philosophy from the ancient Greeks; imposed law and order within its provinces; kept bureaucratic records; and enforced religious tolerance. The New Testament, created during the time of the Roman Empire, bears some traces of modernity as a result. You couldn’t invent a story about God completely obliterating the city of Rome (a la Sodom and Gomorrah), because the Roman historians would call you on it, and you couldn’t just stone them.
In contrast, the people who invented the Old Testament stories could make up pretty much anything they liked. Early Egyptologists were genuinely shocked to find no trace whatsoever of Hebrew tribes having ever been in Egypt—they weren’t expecting to find a record of the Ten Plagues, but they expected to find something. As it turned out, they did find something. They found out that, during the supposed time of the Exodus, Egypt ruled much of Canaan. That’s one huge historical error, but if there are no libraries, nobody can call you on it.
The Roman Empire did have libraries. Thus, the New Testament doesn’t claim big, showy, large-scale geopolitical miracles as the Old Testament routinely did. Instead the New Testament claims smaller miracles which nonetheless fit into the same framework of evidence. A boy falls down and froths at the mouth; the cause is an unclean spirit; an unclean spirit could reasonably be expected to flee from a true prophet, but not to flee from a charlatan; Jesus casts out the unclean spirit; therefore Jesus is a true prophet and not a charlatan. This is perfectly ordinary Bayesian reasoning, if you grant the basic premise that epilepsy is caused by demons (and that the end of an epileptic fit proves the demon fled).
Not only did religion used to make claims about factual and scientific matters, religion used to make claims about everything. Religion laid down a code of law—before legislative bodies; religion laid down history—before historians and archaeologists; religion laid down the sexual morals—before Women’s Lib; religion described the forms of government—before constitutions; and religion answered scientific questions from biological taxonomy to the formation of stars.1 The modern concept of religion as purely ethical derives from every other area’s having been taken over by better institutions. Ethics is what’s left.
Or rather, people think ethics is what’s left. Take a culture dump from 2,500 years ago. Over time, humanity will progress immensely, and pieces of the ancient culture dump will become ever more glaringly obsolete. Ethics has not been immune to human progress—for example, we now frown upon such Bible-approved practices as keeping slaves. Why do people think that ethics is still fair game?
Intrinsically, there’s nothing small about the ethical problem with slaughtering thousands of innocent first-born male children to convince an unelected Pharaoh to release slaves who logically could have been teleported out of the country. It should be more glaring than the comparatively trivial scientific error of saying that grasshoppers have four legs. And yet, if you say the Earth is flat, people will look at you like you’re crazy. But if you say the Bible is your source of ethics, women will not slap you. Most people’s concept of rationality is determined by what they think they can get away with; they think they can get away with endorsing Bible ethics; and so it only requires a manageable effort of self-deception for them to overlook the Bible’s moral problems. Everyone has agreed not to notice the elephant in the living room, and this state of affairs can sustain itself for a time.
Maybe someday, humanity will advance further, and anyone who endorses the Bible as a source of ethics will be treated the same way as Trent Lott endorsing Strom Thurmond’s presidential campaign. And then it will be said that religion’s “true core” has always been genealogy or something.
The idea that religion is a separate magisterium that cannot be proven or disproven is a Big Lie—a lie which is repeated over and over again, so that people will say it without thinking; yet which is, on critical examination, simply false. It is a wild distortion of how religion happened historically, of how all scriptures present their beliefs, of what children are told to persuade them, and of what the majority of religious people on Earth still believe. You have to admire its sheer brazenness, on a par with Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia. The prosecutor whips out the bloody axe, and the defendant, momentarily shocked, thinks quickly and says: “But you can’t disprove my innocence by mere evidence—it’s a separate magisterium!”
And if that doesn’t work, grab a piece of paper and scribble yourself a Get Out of Jail Free card.
1 The Old Testament doesn't talk about a sense of wonder at the complexity of the universe, perhaps because it was too busy laying down the death penalty for women who wore mens clothing, which was solid and satisfying religious content of that era.
Very well written, as usual. But many other modern institutions have analogous ancient institutions that look rather silly by modern standards. Consider trial by combat in law, or ancient scholastic obsessions with the "true" meaning of ancient texts. If lawyers and academics can disavow these ancient practices, while still embracing a true essence of law or academia, why can't religious folks disavow ancient religious practice in favor of some true essence that makes sense in modern terms?
1) Because they'll say with their lips, "Oh, well, I just want the true essence" and then go on denying homosexuals the right to marry because it's the word of God.
2) What's left, exactly?
3) Nazism would have been unexceptional if it had been an ancient religion instead of a modern government. Why can't modern Nazis disavow ancient Nazi practice in favor of some true essence that makes sense in modern terms?
4) Why not start your search for the true essence in Lord of the Rings, which dominates the Bible both ethically and aesthetically? Or Harry Potter? Or Oh My Goddess?
And above all,
5) Because it's a fantastically elaborate way of refusing to admit you were wrong.
One can argue that holocaust denial is an attempt to bring nazism closer to modern ethical values. Real, authentic Nazis were proud of their achievement and would be outraged by thought that their successors would call them a lie.
Some people do :-P
The difference is that ethics are not falsifiable. This leads me to believe there are no ethical truths.
I think you're mistakenly equivocating between "wrong with" referring to morality and rational justification. If there are no moral truths, then of course it's not immoral to believe there are moral truths, but it's not epistemically rational, which is the relevant point among people who care about epistemic rationality.
To Robin: I think the central problem is that religion makes claims, not arguments, and then changes its claims when they become untenable. But since claims are all religion has got, it doesn't really have an essence to keep constant during this process. Perhaps one could argue that the method of making claims is what the essence is, like the scholarly or lawyerly method/mentality. This is hard for me to swallow, though, since the religious method of claiming is just "because God says so," which doesn't strike me as a permissible essence. Similarly, religious people like to talk about "faith" as the essence, but this is circular.
Eliezer, it's a good point, and hopefully writings like these will get the skeptic community (much larger than the reduce existential risk community) buzzing about "bayesian reasoning" as the proper contrast to religion. But it seems to me that religion has already been slayed many, many times by public intellectuals. The cutting edge areas to address, the "hard" areas, are things like universal adult enfranchisement to select policy makers and juries as finders of fact.
Eliezer: Those who espouse any separate magisteria seem to me to consistently espouse only two: science and religion. Other scientific questions, even contentious, fervently-believed ones that impact morality and public policy, are subject to the normal rules of science. Yahweh's existence gets a magisterium, but global warming, aptitude equality among races and sexes, and the extent of neural activity in fetuses do not. At least, nobody admits they do. Do you believe any secular beliefs are protected by NOMA, perhaps by another name? Is there a generalized lesson that secular opponents of cognitive bias should learn from this, beyond the universal application of science?
From a practical perspective, it seems to me that we need religion to bolster the arrogance of the non-religious. It seems a-priori impossible that I could be right when my opinions go strongly against social consensus. I am thus tempted towards a weak form of philosophical majoritarianism http://www.overcomingbias.com/2007/03/on_majoritarian.html but then I remember religion and it sets me back on the right track.
Eliezer, imagine you knew two people who both did embarrassing stupid things when they were young, and that one person you excused with "boys will be boys" or "the folly of youth", while the other you told to anyone that would listen that you would never trust or associate with a person who did such a terrible thing. This would seem to be playing favorites, unless perhaps the difference is that one person repented of their youthful acts while the other did not.
Similarly, you seem to be playing favorites in allowing lawyers and academics to disavow their silly ancient practices, while insisting that religious folks today take responsibility for ancient foolish religious claims. Sure your criticism sticks to those who refuse to disavow those ancient claims, but I think we should treat differently those, like Unitarians, who to do so disavow.
My main problem is that I find it hard to understand what such people are in fact claiming. At least I understood the ancient foolish claims, mostly.
Robin, I would indeed put someone who called themselves a Unitarian in a different class from someone who called themselves a Zoroastrian or Christian. It's still a big blatant mistake, but so long as the person is willing to take strict personal responsibility for their own moral judgments, it's a less urgent matter.
You can call yourself a scientist and disavow association with Newton by standing up and saying, "Newton was wrong, and I know better, because I come from a superior culture." But then you certainly cannot call yourself a Newtonian. Likewise you cannot call yourself a "flat-Earther" and disavow association with the idea that the Earth is flat because you are pursuing the "true essence" of flat-Earthism. You could repudiate all scripture and still call yourself spiritual, but there would still have to be that moment of repudiation, of admitting you were wrong.
Actually, Robin, come to think of it, you may be executing an inappropriate shift between levels of abstraction.
Science is not the same as a particular scientific theory. Any particular scientific theory is subject to the Bayes-law, the rules of evidence, and may be destroyed by contrary evidence; any particular scientific theory is disprovable. This is what people mean when they say "Science is falsifiable." They're referring to every particular instance of science, not the abstract category Science. Red is a color, blood is red, blood is not a color.
When someone says "I am a scientist", they (should) mean that they identify with the rules of evidence, not with any particular theory. You can disavow past specific scientific theories, and still remain a scientist, so long as you avow the rules of evidence. A lawyer can disavow trial by combat, and still avow justice, but then they cannot call themselves a medievalist.
Similarly, when I talk about "religion's claim to be non-disprovable" I mean the claim that specific religions like Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Unitarianism are non-disprovable.
What is the category that includes both the Bhagav... (read more)
Well, UU is definitely on the "accommodationist" side, which means that, when asked "Are there supernatural things?", it answers "Shut up, debate is intolerance". But Unitarians' behavior does reveal a probability estimate - for example, someone praying for a disease to be cured is certainly putting a non-negligible probability mass on "There are things that listen to me pray and can cure disease". There are no Official Unitarian Beliefs, but there are beliefs of individual Unitarians and they can be stupid but protected by "Don't tell me this is stupid or you are evil and intolerant"-type memes. In particular, "Belief in the supernatural is not laughably wrong" is a claim made by many Unitarians.
Okay, chewing pellets could plausibly be lumped in with chewing one's cud, though I am Not Happy about things becoming "imagery" the second they're literally false.... (read more)
I'm going to focus on one word in your comment: "democracy".
So, you would permit "democracy ... to answer various questions formerly answered by scripture"?
It makes me sad to learn that. I am strongly opposed to the idea that counting votes is a good way of arriving at ordinary or moral truth (unless perhaps one is very picky about whose vote counts).
Of course, that pernicious idea --Majority Rule-- is so prevalent in our world that I would not bother to voice my objection except that you are the leader of a project that if successful will impose on the entire future light cone decisions that will have the same unbendable and irreversible character that physical law now has. This property of irreversibility is quite unique to your project. (There are other project that would impose irreversible conditions, namely sterilization of the biosphere, if they fail or go wrong, but yours is the only one I know of that would do so if you succeed.)
What makes my agony and my sadness particularly acute is the knowledge that up to the age 19 or so, you wrote about ultimate ends in ways I found completely benign and lovable. I refer of course to documents like TMOLFAQ, wh... (read more)
Hollerith, read the Old Testament. Scripture used to make the laws. Not just when to bring sacrifices, but the death penalty for kidnapping, how much to pay a man for raping his daughter, that sort of thing. That's the function I was referring to as being taken over by "democracy", which, yes, we all know isn't perfect, but it's a hell of a lot better than scripture. If you assumed I meant that democracy could dictate morality, that just goes to show how unconsciously people accept the Big Lie of the Bible being an ethical philosophy.
Richard, I share your concerns, as expressed in past posts to this blog. Great to see someone else (non-anonymously?) expressing them. I have a longer response on my anonymous blog.
I was riffing off of a few words you wrote here to make a point about CEV, about which I have strong feelings. I'll restrict my future comments about CEV and AI to more appropiate forums.
(Are there adults who consider themselves qualified to comment here who have not read the Old Testament as part of their basic education?)
HA slipped in. HA: I will read your blog with great relish.
What do you mean by "I know of". Do you mean an account that you have evidence for? If yes, what evidence is that? Or do you mean the earliest recorded? Surely there were early ones recorded. Korach and the 250 men?
How exquisite to read something like this in a thread attacking the absurdities of the narratives of religious beliefs. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.
Matthew, standard reply is at Rapture of the Nerds, Not.
Robin, I've expanded on my objection #5 to your "Why can't they still embrace the true essence?"
I've recently been trying to think of how to explain non-Euclidean geometry (or, what's worse, Cantorian set theory) to ancient Greek mathematicians. Is today's mathematics the same as their mathematics? After all, ancient Greek mathematics made falsifiable claims about actual measurements.
My apology, it's a long post but they are my final thoughts.
Eliezer: "Robin, I would indeed put someone who called themselves a Unitarian in a different class from someone who called themselves a Zoroastrian or Christian. It's still a big blatant mistake, but so long as the person is willing to take strict personal responsibility for their own moral judgments, it's a less urgent matter."
I'm not really clear as to why? Do you not think Unitarian has some affiliation to Zoroastrian or Christianity? Where do you think moral judgements come from? ... (read more)
So I take it you don't like Kierkegaard? Humph.
Seriously, though, I wonder to what extent it's really possible to argue people out of religion. And I strongly suspect it's close to zero.
Is the function of a post like this (and Dennett's books on the subject, and everything Dawkins has done in the last N years, etc. etc.) less to persuade and more to -- well -- call it argument as attire? By hammering out yet another strong argument about the overwhelming dumbness of religion, you, and Dennett, and Dawkins (and sometimes I) self-identify as a member of the atheist-intellectual-sciencenerd tribe.
A peripheral correction:
They found out that, during the supposed time of the Exodus from Egypt, Egypt ruled Canaan. The tribes would have fled to find Pharaoh's armies already at the destination.
When Egypt ruled Canaan, it was through vassal kings and not with large garrisons (although there were occasional Egyptian governors and forts). Egyptian rule was weak, partial, and often broke down completely: There were kings opposed to Egypt, the vassals were not always loyal, and all kings were under attack from each other and from nomads. Some of these nomads may even be connected by name to the "Hebrews." It is not clear that Egypt would have truly "ruled" Canaan at certain dates which could be suggested for the Exodus.
None of this says that the precise Biblical story is true, nor damage your argument significantly, but the historical record does not suggest that flight from Egypt to Canaan would be quite so absurd as suggested here.
Paul, since "rationality" for many people is a function of what they think they can get away with, I think there is winnable territory in terms of making belief in a scriptural religion - Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Scientology, etc. - socially less acceptable within the science/engineering community. If people know that saying "I believe in this 2,500-year-old culture dump" will be met by people saying, out loud or silently, "How incredibly stupid", they will be more reluctant to do it. One small step toward waking up out of the long nightmare. If people are not socially expected to think, they will not think.
Joshua, thanks, fixed.
Eliezer, are you intentionaly ignoring my comment posted @ August 04, 2007 at10:58 PM ?
This involves the issue of whether religion, or the claims of religion are an emperical matter. I would certainly say that the claims of religion are. The Tanach is full of references of how there are pillars upholding the Earth and a vault of heaven making the "firmament." Adonia opens portals in this vault to let the waters pour forth and Hoah flood take place. Of course we do understand things better. NASA has no problem of rockets running into some sort of dome.
Cosmology and quantum gravity are pointing to how the occurrence of the unive... (read more)
Robin asked "If lawyers and academics can disavow these ancient practices, while still embracing a true essence of law or academia, why can't religious folks disavow ancient religious practice in favor of some true essence that makes sense in modern terms?"
In "Retreat To Commitment", Bartley described the (at the time) very large and very powerful group of liberal Protestants who did so disavow ancient views, and look what it got them: demographic replacement by the faithful, by the Evangelists. It only looks like religious folks are different. In truth, after a while we no longer see many folks representing those newer, weaker memes. Isn't it just normal evolution?
I suspect that the origin of religion is deep in our evolution. Stories about spirits and totems of a landscape may well have their basis in the evolution of our linguistic ability. These "nature religions" are ways that information about an environment are communicated from generation to generation. This can be argued to have a survival benefit and something that is selected for. It has been with more recent development of complex social structures (towns, agriculture, empires etc) that these nature spirits became compressed into larger gods... (read more)
Nope, this is not my cup of tea! I find far greater intellectual insight in working with modular forms, Jacobi theta-functions and algebraic or projective varieties. Applying these to understanding quantum codes makes them even more interesting.
I find religious services maybe only a bit more interesting than scrubbing the water marks off the bathroom and kitchen sinks and fixtures.
Lawrence B. Crowell
Eliezer, you shouldn't have chased Anna away.
David, I've dealt with her before.
Ed, I mean that no earlier example came to mind off the top of my head. Korach doesn't include a symmetric experiment with an experimental and control group, etc. But I didn't exactly search exhaustively.
I always marvel that religions which were empire-forming ideologies, historically late arrivals, whose common foundations are very much this-worldly, continue to charm otherwise intelligent people.
Zarathustra, Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed, each presents a silly moralistic cosmic dualism (Good/Evil, God/Devil, religious/secular, permanent/transitory). Ahura Mazda, Yahweh, God, and Allah are ethical equivalents of comic book super-villains.
And this pulp fiction enjoys fanatical cult followings.
Eliezer, your overgeneralized claims about religion are untrue. I expect more of a post in a forum dedicated to overcoming bias and seeking truth.
Sure, there are plenty of Biblical literalists in the world. But that's just one variety of religion. It's not what religion IS. Buddhists, Unitarians, Reform Jews, liberal Protestants, and many other self-identified religious people would object strenuously to your characterization of religion. Unitarians, liberal Christians and Jews treat the Bible as God-inspired allegory, to be understood in the historical... (read more)
Well, one aspect of this that I find amusing in a mildly infuriating way is the common sort of understanding of "atheism" that seems to be largely based on a rejection of what someone learned in their fifth grade Sunday School classes. Kathryn above makes exactly this point (although I'd claim that Buddhism makes specifically scientific claims: that following certain practices based on a certain understanding of the Nature of Things, leads to greater peace of mind and less suffering.) But then she nails it by noting that the claim that "re... (read more)
Presumably you think that the statement, "X is a truth only if falsifiable" is true. Is this statement falsifiable?
It isn't falsifiable on empirical grounds. It might be falsiable on a priori grounds, though I bet that's not what you have in mind. If you admit of a priori grounds, though, you've opened the door back up for ethics despite it not being empirically testable.
"X is a truth only if falsifiable" can be a useful rule of thumb rather than a statement that is true or false.
Eliezar, something of a 'rant' ? 'the people who invented the Old Testament stories could make up pretty much anything they liked'.... overlooking that we're talking about oral traditions committed to writing centuries later. Of course the domain covered by the books of the old testament covers law, social customs, and a whole bunch of stuff which is now the domain of other institutions. Of course ideas have moved on in most of those domains. I'd be more interested in reading your ideas about why the fears, insecurities, and identitiy issues so many... (read more)
No, it's entirely unreal. This 'superior being' would have created an entire timeline in which it did not intervene, because it erased any influence it had over events from that timeline, ... (read more)
@ Paul Gowder:
"I wonder to what extent it's really possible to argue people out of religion. And I strongly suspect it's close to zero."
I was argued of religion. An epistemic argument is what did it -- the "God" I "believed in" turned out to be a nearly meaningless concept.
J, I generally treat non-falsifiable statements as basically being meaningless in an objective sense but possibly revealing something about the speaker. Your statement about true statements was somewhat like a definition, and it is pointless to try to falsify a definition, they merely permit people to discuss something using the same term.
Thanks for a thought-provoking post. I do, however, have some criticisms:
1) Not to be snarky, but you obviously aren't talking about "religion." You are discussing Christianity. Clearly you cannot disprove Hindu on the basis of disproving the Old Testament (if you had disproven the Old Testament, which I don't believe you have).
2) You mention Christ once: to call his miracle into question. Other than that, He is a footnote. Everything necessary for salvation, however, from a Christian perspective, is contained in the New Testament. Should... (read more)
Apologies; in point 5 I said you referenced the following link. You did not in this post. However, it does exist on this site: http://www.overcomingbias.com/2007/08/we-are-not-unba.html
DB, what makes you think Eliezer is talking only about Christianity and not equally about Orthodox Judaism? (Hint: look at his name, or his past postings here.) In fact, how can it make sense to say (1) he's definitely talking specifically about Christianity even though (2) he says "religion" instead and (3) Jesus is only a footnote?
I think you're clearly right that there's some sense of the wonder of the universe in YHWH's speech to Job, and also in (e.g.) Psalm 19. But I don't think Eliezer's point is much dented by this: he's saying that altho... (read more)
Sure, he could be talking about Orthodox Judaism. But even if that is taken in conjunction with Christianity, it hardly comprises "religion." But if his intention is merely to show a test case, I concede the point.
I can't help feeling that these "awe and wonder" religionists are straw men. Awe and wonder, from a Christian perspective anyway, are only part of what is offered in scripture.
It's a categorical error because it assumes an equivalent relationship between God and people. (It also ignores the context of the occurence, but that... (read more)
I'm left in 'awe and wonder' at the literalism of the debates going on here. The OT is a bunch of mythology and folklore, so, what else is new ? The NT is a heterogenous collection of Roman imperial propaganda, Jewish apocalyptic propaganda, and perhaps, some vague recollections of what a good man once said. So ? What does any of that have to do with logical categories ? Eliezar is guilty, as Anna pointed out, of mixing up the crudest OT literalism with any and every other level of religious experience and expression. I understand that, he was trauma... (read more)
Do I understand, then, that you reject the possibility of revelational knowledge of the divine?
Yeah, perhaps they're straw men. There seems to be a bit of a shortage of non-straw defenders of (serious) religion, though. I mean, there are the fundamentalists and the young-earthers and such -- I'm focusing on Christianity because that's the religion I know best; maybe things are different with other religions -- who are (sometimes) clear and (usually) forceful but also obviously wrong. And there are the woolly liberal types who mostly refrain from saying anything too testable.
Unless a religion is simply going to degenerate into power-worship, you can'... (read more)
Hi DB, no I don't. I 'believe' in its improbability, if you're talking voices out of a burning bush. On the other hand, I would look for some commonality in the revelations to different peoples at different times. I would, for instance, strongly reject the notion of a chosen people, or a chosen time, for such revelation. I would also be very wary of any categorisation of the notion 'divine'. Different levels of consciousness, yes. 'God Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth', perhaps a little too simplistic. Final cause ? The 'divine revelation' as understood by Hindu Yogis tempts me more than any other.
I don't propose to defend Exodus 11. It's a difficult passage from within a theological framework (which I'm sure you recall), but even more difficult when taken in isolation from the whole counsel of scripture. I struggle with it myself, and I suspect I'm meant to do so. But I do have to insist that we either differentiate between ethics and theology, or admit up front that there is a commitment to assuming God is made in man's image, and not the other way around.
I fear that in my zeal, I may have drifted into waters I didn't intend to swim in. Eliezer'... (read more)
DB, I think you're making a false dichotomy, and I don't see how your position avoids your religion degenerating into power-worship or something equally unpalatable. Why do you worship and serve God? Because he's good? Bzzt, nope, because you've made "good" completely content-free when predicated of God. Because he's big and powerful and created the world? Power-worship. (Would you worship the devil if he were more powerful than God?) Because he's saved you from your sins? Mere self-interest. (If the devil could make an even better offer -- save ... (read more)
DB, all I can or will say about the Bible being folklore is that to the best of my knowledge it occupies a similar position in the literary history of its culture as, say, the Mahabharata or the Mabinogion or the Kalevala do in theirs. Those more expert than I could comment the Babylonian texts prefiguring the Biblical ones, or the implications of the diversity in the Dead Sea scrolls. An alternative approach is simply to consider the diversity of types of text constituting the OT. Rich and various it is, but most of it has nothing much to do with Divini... (read more)
Thanks for challenging me here. In an effort to avoid insisting too much, and leaning too much on the goodwill of all involved, I'll let that be the last word.
OK. (Interesting discussion. Thanks.)
Well said, G. Ordinarily Overcoming Bias frowns on comments this long but this is worth an exception.
I hope the priests of Baal checked that it was indeed water, and not some sort of accelerant.
If you show me the dead body of Jesus Christ, I will give up being a Christian.
What evidence would convince you that something you were shown (e.g. a pile of bones, some dust on a sidewalk, or anything else) were the dead body of Jesus Christ?
I certianly stumbled into something here. I was actually looking up ojectivity and bias in relation to Accounting. But anyway...
I tend to agree with most of you in that I find it difficult to believe in something I have no proof of. Now, I am not even attempting to say I am an expert in either religion or athiesim, or much of what was discussed here. However, I will relate what I once said in a discussion with someone else.
We fell on the discussion of religion in the abstract. I tend to feel that much of what goes on in the world, i.e. wars, stri... (read more)
"not one single passage of the Old Testament will you find anyone talking about a transcendent wonder at the complexity of the universe"
Eli, Not sure what you'd consider "the Old testament", but just to be fair to tanakh:
Psalm 8:3-9 When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?
On a different note, Bob Aumann explained his religion by "orthogonality" in an interview; not sure if that was in the same sense as you're using it here, but made as much sense as the trinity to me (none).
I quoted Eliezer, along with other experts, on either side of the issue, here:
Can science prove or disprove the existence of God?
I wish there were a version of this article that discussed religions invented extremely recently.
an atheist argument in support of an almighty god. this is not meant to be a straw argument but rather a (hopefully) rational aspect on the futility of disproving religion and god.
To set out what i currently think i understand about Eliezer's argument, He conceives as god as the programmer. our reality is akin to the matrix and God is they guy who has total control. He can rewind his scenario, review it as a whole, and can basically do anything he wills. With this definition in mind, Eliezer takes roughly two or three methods of disapproval. 1) disappro... (read more)
I found this site through the posts on decoherence and many-worlds; I haven't yet read them all, and look forward to doing so. Also enjoyed the posts on Bayesian rationality.
But I was disappointed by this one. The main reason is that it implicitly reduces all religious phenomena to matters of belief, which I think is a mistake.
To be clear about where I'm coming from: I don't hold any religious beliefs. Nevertheless, I think that much of what goes on in religion is psychologically or sociologically beneficial. And I think that religious language is often mi... (read more)
The point is not that there's a dichotomy between Iron Age beliefs and atheism, but that moderate religious belief has its own issues.
If you allow yourself to identify with particular claims without regard to the actual evidence for them, you're liable to end up accepting ridiculous claims out of affiliation. Modes of thought are habit forming; if you insist on finding some way to interpret biblical passages that will allow you to continue to affiliate as Christian, for example, you're liable to also insist on finding ways to interpret data that will allow you to continue to affiliate as Liberal, Conservative, Libertarian or whatever, regardless of whether that interpretation is a rational response to the data. This can lead to anything from lost lives due to poorly considered legislation to getting yourself injured practicing bad martial arts techniques. Moderate theists rarely manage to sacrifice every factual belief attached to their religion required by actual deference to evidence, leading to positions like rejection of cryonics on the basis that it prevents access to the afterlife, or can't work because it won't preserve the soul. If they rejected every unsupported empirical... (read more)
Excellent article, I enjoyed it a lot.
One thing bothers me. What the hell are children told to persuade them to belief in a God, anyway? I don't remember what mine told me; I became atheist at the age of like 10 and even that is a very fuzzy memory. Basically I remember that as soon as non-belief became apparent to me as an option, belief has struck me as completely lacking in justification; a big unanswered "why" - all the more annoying because for some reason asking "why" was not considered reasonable among most people I talked to (ot... (read more)
I think this phrasing, particularly of the parenthetical portion, is a low-level but still present existential risk, because the temptation it creates for teenagers such as myself to actual... (read more)
Maintenance: The link in the opening sentence no longer exists.
+1 for that imagery alone. I'm still chuckling over that one.
Still, I think that there is a difference between ethics and all the other magisteria that the Christian religion was forced to shed: ethics is prescriptive, not descriptive. Thus, someone could claim, f.ex., "I have the right to keep slaves, my holy book says so, end of story", and you couldn't exactly dispute that (though you could stop him by force, hopefully). By contrast, if he said, "the Earth is flat, my holy book says so, end of story"... (read more)
What happens however, if one simply goes at the very core of monotheism and states "God exists, created the Universe (by Big Bang if you like), from which life arose because he built the laws of physics that way. And he will someday end the universe and create a new one with only the souls he judges good." What part of that can one disprove exactly? I'm not saying it is a valid theory, it isn't exactly because it can't be disproven. I don't know you, but the christians I know don't use the bible as their strict code of ethics and don't believe in... (read more)
The Creation Myth defies the dogma of "mysterious ways".
I believe the universe has always and will always exist, with merely allowances for matter approaching either 2 or 3 dimensions.
Creation from infinite power to our finite power is mathematically impossible, by definition. Creation from a finite power to lesser finite power could be understood, using scale - like reading a map or envisioning the planet Jupiter. Thus with some future understanding of the "creation", "mysterious ways" lies fall apart.
Also - the so called G... (read more)
Very helpful. Although, I think a more accurate "something" would be control of who gets into that fanciful country club in the clouds with a perfect view of their "heathen" friends burning like crispy bacon strips. Ethics is already gone, the true core is fear-mongering, manipulation, and salvation. I hope exceptions to this exist but I've never encountered a western religion that didn't threaten, demand obedience, and promise me salvation in return.
In case anyone is confused by the differences between Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Mormonism, I'll pass along this amusing comment:
I fail to understand you. I recall a phrase you often use "What can be disproved by science should be," or something along those lines. But, aren't you just fooling yourself? Unlike the Harry Potter of your stories, the odds of you finding immortality in your lifetime is slim to none (and as you pointed out in the problem of fun, even that would ring false eventually). So tell me, why aren't you in abject despair over your fate? There's nothing you can do, and nothing you do makes a difference. On that premise, wouldn't you reason that it's point... (read more)
As far a... (read more)
But Deuteronomy 22:5/Deuteronomy#22) says nothing about the death penalty. It's just an abomination, which presumably means, "You're going to hell, but we won't necessarily stone you."
A better argument would be, "The Old Testament [...] was busy laying down the death penalty for victims of rape."... (read more)
Here you are making the claim that Old Testament miracles were bolder and more daring than New Testament ones because the Old Testament writers felt they could get away with a lot more because they knew that their contemporaries lacked the means to verify or discredit their claims. You imply that if not for the fact the Romans were better record k... (read more)
Greenleaf also makes a number of claims, like this one:
Greenleaf has basically no idea what he's talking about. He appears to be using theory and the bible as his main sources. But most of his claims (eg that the Gospels were written almost immediately after Jesus' death, or that they didn't change thereafter) are wrong. (Note: I only skimmed the essay, since it's long. He may quibble later on.) See Bart Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus, or for that matter, Wikipedia. More generally, every single ancient religion produced numerous claims similar to those of the bible, with countless eyewitnesses; many events that weren't religious also produced similar claims. For example, Herodotus, a... (read more)
What is the rational response to something like this? Because I still don't know what to think.
I met Ms. Digan in person, and there's a bit more to the story than is told on the site; the two most important things are that 1) the doctors who examined her were not, as the site implies, Catholic stooges, just normal doctors, most of them atheist; and 2) her son, a very young child at the time, came with her to Poland and stayed behind in the room, and also experienced a healing--he had some sort of dege... (read more)
If any God or Gods with relevance to the human condition and actual power exist, probably the very first thing we can tell about them is that they don't want to make themselves known or believed in -- or they could easily make themselves known.
So, conditional to said existence, the majority of the remaining weight of probability is that they prefer to be disbelieved in. So why contradict them? It sounds dangerous to believe in powerful beings when they don't want you to believe in them-- much like trying to uncover a powerful conspiracy that doesn't want you to discover it.
I happen to read this article just now, while this quote from the Dalai Lama is still fresh in my mind:
(originally published on facebook, so no source but you can look it up... (read more)
Thank you for writing this. The points you made here help make all of the jumbled thoughts I've had about religion cohere better. A pity that the members of my family who are still religious aren't willing to accept any alternatives to their worldview — I'd enjoy sharing this essay with them. I'll discuss it with those who are more like me, instead.
The link to "Bayesian reasoning" is broken.
Corrected Bayes explanation link: http://yudkowsky.net/rational/bayes/
I recommend that the title is changed to Judaism´s Claim to be Non-Disprovable or something like that. Eliezer can´t just talk and talk about Judaism (I bet he was raised as a jew since he almost always refer to judaism) and then call this article RELIGION´s claim. I know that he is well aware of all kinds of uncommon religions, so I se no reason to be this arrogant.
EDIT: I deserved a downvote here, since EZ also refers to christianity in some respect, even though that is of course not a big thing, since christianity from a historic perspective is a contin... (read more)
Unless you are familiar with every religion in the world, you can´t logically make this claim. I don´t know every religion so I don´t know if it is false or true that all religions claim to be non-disprovable. I think that it would surely help to provide examples that can be proved to apply to all religions. It would give the article more of the credibility it deserves.
Even if it is true that all religions claim to be non-disprovable, and all the points in the article are valid, it is still a mistake to present this hypothesis using only one or two religio... (read more)
I've heard the story of Elijah and the Priests of Baal being told as one of the first experimental swindles, rather than the first experiment. It goes something like this: Elijah: Pours 'water' on his pyre. Pyre: Catches on fire Priest of Baal: "Wait was that water or oil? If I pour some of your 'water' on my pyre maybe it will light too..." Elijah: "Put them to death before they can invent repeatability testing."
The water being oil part is so obvious that it reads less like a 'God turned water into fire' story and more like a 'look how dumb those Baal worshipers were, we totally tricked them' story. I've heard it told both ways though.
I really appreciate your argument about the differences between claims made in the old and new testament.
Unfortunately, I generally expect to read rational and thought provoking facts here and was slightly disappointed. There are some facts which simple google searches seem to refute (such as rather large Jewish populations were ever enslaved in Egypt) and arguments that lean on sentiment against practices supposedly endorsed in the Bible which are either not actually endorsed in the Bible (such as slavery which while being a Hebrew practice, is never endo... (read more)
Incidentally something like the defence at the end has actually been used. In 2006, a Northern Irish terrorist called Michael Stone, only just out of prison, was charged with attempted murder after trying to force his way into the Stormont parliament building while armed with a gun and home-made explosives.
It seemed an open and shut case, but in court his defence was that, despite having all the ingredients of an act of terrorism, this wasn’t one at all, but a work of performance art - a mere simulation of an act of terrorism for aesthetic purposes.
As it h... (read more)
One thing I see is that people take the fact that some pieces of their religion are of a nature that can be neither proven nor disproven and assume that that absolves them from having to justify any of it.
Believing in a supernatural master of our universe isn't any more unreasonable than believing we live in a simulation instead of the top-level reality. Neither supposition can be definitively shown to be true or false without access to an outside view of the universe itself. That's not something we're likely to accomplish any time soon.
But doe... (read more)
this reminds me of a quote by C. S. Lewis
“Others may have quite a different objection to our proceedings.
They may protest that intellectual discussion can neither build Christianity nor destroy it. They may feel that religion is too sacred to be thus bandied to and fro in public debate, too sacred to be talked of - almost, perhaps, too sacred for anything to be done with it at all. Clearly, the Christian members of the Socratic think differently. They know that intellectual assent is not faith, but they do not believe that religion is only 'what a ma... (read more)
[EDITED to add: The following was written in response to a comment that has now been deleted -- not, I believe, by its author. The comment took exception to what Eliezer said about moral horrors in the Bible.]
The problem with biblical ethics isn't that the Bible describes things that we now find morally terrible, it's that it endorses things that we now find morally terrible while claiming (or being claimed) to speak authoritatively for a perfectly good god.
So no one is complaining that the Bible says Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers. The... (read more)
I'm a decade and a half late, but I'd like to say thanks for this essay. It was my first exposure to someone else using a principle I now hold pretty dear, which comes out in words similar to "A belief you can't prove is a hallucination". I had intuition before, but now I can explain the statement "If you think you can't prove something in any way, you're unjustified in believing it, although it may coincidentally be true".
but which is more nuanced in my head where words are less important ↩︎
A side opinion of religion. Religion is not just the old testament, new testament, or kuran. It's more like a phenomenological and narrative-laden way of describing the world. For ex- a group of people who live on an island automatically believe that the world is a piece of land floating on the water, and they are standing under a dome of a blue sheet of the sky, the center of everything. Because that's what their individual and shared experience will be at that moment.
This is not very useful for sending rockets to the moon, but it is very useful to naviga... (read more)
The claim that religion is a separate magisterium that can neither be proven nor disproven is a big lie indeed. But it is not the lie of RELIGION per se. Some religious people believe it (perhaps more than in the past) while many others don't. Just as some non-religious people believe it and some don't.