I recently spoke with a person who... it's difficult to describe. Nominally, she was an Orthodox Jew. She was also highly intelligent, conversant with some of the archaeological evidence against her religion, and the shallow standard arguments against religion that religious people know about. For example, she knew that Mordecai, Esther, Haman, and Vashti were not in the Persian historical records, but that there was a corresponding old Persian legend about the Babylonian gods Marduk and Ishtar, and the rival Elamite gods Humman and Vashti. She knows this, and she still celebrates Purim. One of those highly intelligent religious people who stew in their own contradictions for years, elaborating and tweaking, until their minds look like the inside of an M. C. Escher painting.
Most people like this will pretend that they are much too wise to talk to atheists, but she was willing to talk with me for a few hours.
As a result, I now understand at least one more thing about self-deception that I didn't explicitly understand before—namely, that you don't have to really deceive yourself so long as you believe you've deceived yourself. Call it "belief in self-deception".
When this woman was in high school, she thought she was an atheist. But she decided, at that time, that she should act as if she believed in God. And then—she told me earnestly—over time, she came to really believe in God.
So far as I can tell, she is completely wrong about that. Always throughout our conversation, she said, over and over, "I believe in God", never once, "There is a God." When I asked her why she was religious, she never once talked about the consequences of God existing, only about the consequences of believing in God. Never, "God will help me", always, "my belief in God helps me". When I put to her, "Someone who just wanted the truth and looked at our universe would not even invent God as a hypothesis," she agreed outright.
She hasn't actually deceived herself into believing that God exists or that the Jewish religion is true. Not even close, so far as I can tell.
On the other hand, I think she really does believe she has deceived herself.
So although she does not receive any benefit of believing in God—because she doesn't—she honestly believes she has deceived herself into believing in God, and so she honestly expects to receive the benefits that she associates with deceiving oneself into believing in God; and that, I suppose, ought to produce much the same placebo effect as actually believing in God.
And this may explain why she was motivated to earnestly defend the statement that she believed in God from my skeptical questioning, while never saying "Oh, and by the way, God actually does exist" or even seeming the slightest bit interested in the proposition.
When I first read "Belief in Belief", I liked it, and agreed with it, but I thought it was describing a curiousity; an exotic specimen of irrationality for us to oooh and aaah over. I mentally applied it to Unitarians and Reform Jews and that was about it.
I've since started wondering more and more if it actually describes a majority of religious people. I don't know if this is how Eliezer intended it, but it was two things that really convinced me:
The first reason was behavior. Most theists I know occasionally deviate from their religious principles; not egregiously, but they're far from perfect. But when I imagine a world that would make me believe religion with certainty - a world where angels routinely descend to people's bedsides to carry their souls to Heaven, or where Satan allows National Geographic into Hell to film a documentary - I find it hard to imagine people sleeping in on Sundays. Not even the most hardened criminal will steal when the policeman's right in front of him and the punishment is infinite.
The second was a webcomic: http://www.heavingdeadcats.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/02/file1126-2.jpg It wasn't so much that theists wouldn't drink the poison as ... (read more)
One thing that makes Christianity such a powerful meme is that it has specifically developed defenses that seem designed to counter this kind of argument. They're actually written right into the Bible.
" 5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. 6 “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:
“‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’[c]”
7 Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’[d]”"
Basically, the exact kind of test you're talking about, an attempt to falsify the hypothesis that God exists and will protect you, is something that you are explicitly forbidden from trying to do in the Bible. Even the act of suggesting it as a course of action is associated with the Devil.
The fact that Christianity has such well-developed internal defenses against being challenged is one reason it's been such an effective meme. Also, perhaps more interesting, I would say that the fact that it was felt that they needed to do so proves that even at the time the Bible was written there were rationalists (or at least proto-rationalists) challenging religion on rational grounds, and the early religious leaders felt the need to counter those kinds of arguments.
This is one of the things James Randi is known for. He'll take a "fatal" dose of homeopathic sleeping pills during talks (e.g. his TED talk) as a way of showing they don't work.
That seems like a strawman. Most western democracies have substantial antimajoritarian components to their basic laws. Procedurally, most countries have judicial review of legislative acts. Substantive examples (from the United States) include the First Amendment (freedom of speech) and the Fourth Amendment (protection against unreasonable searches and seizures).
In other words, proponents of democratic government don't intend to communicate that they want every decision made by the majority of the citizens.
Eliezer's post focuses on the distinction between two concepts a person can believe (hereby called "narratives"):
"God is real."
"I have something that qualifies as a 'belief in God'."
Either narrative will be associated with positive things in the person's mind. And the person, particularly with narrative #2, often forms a meta-narrative:
3. "My belief in God has positive effects in my life."
But: Unlike the meta-narrative, our analysis should not proceed as if the relationship between narrative and effects is a simple causal link.
The actual cognitive process that determines the narrative might go something like this:
Notice that the desirable aspects of life enjoyed by religious people in the community conflict with undesirable properties (e.g. falsehood, silliness, uselessness) of religious beliefs.
Trigger a search: "How do I make the undesirable properties go away while keeping benefits?"
Settle on a local optimum way of thinking, according to some evaluation algorithm that is attracted by predictions of certain consequences and repulsed by others.
The search can have a very different character from one individual to a... (read more)
It's worth mentioning that one can actually believe in god yet only say "I believe in god".
When I talk to religious people, I usually say "I don't believe in god" rather than "God does not exist". They both get the point across that I'm an atheist, but nothing else. The second, however, is less confrontational, and it often takes effort to keep people from seeing the discussion as a "battle".
One goes through life thinking one's mistakes are unique to one, only to discover that they are much more common. Yet, I thought I was the only Muslim to force himself to belief like that. But I find that all of the Muslims I know, save perhaps one exception, follow this same pattern. And when I said: "I believe I will go to hell if I don't believe in God, but I can't bring myself into believing in God" they used to tell me "Do your five prayers, read then Qran, if you strive to get closer to God, God will get closer to you." Needless to say, whenever I did that, it backfired: I only got more scared of hell (anyone here who has read the Qran will agree with me that the threats are very vivid) but less believing in God, because it just didn't make sense that God be as he said he was and there be a Hell built after Judgement Day. Among other things.
I wonder if anyone ever fully analysed the Qran and all the resources it uses to tug at the feelings of the reader? I've started seeing some patters since I started reading this site, but I'd like to know if there is a full-blown, complete, exhaustive deconstruction of that book, that is not dripped in islamophobia, ethnocentrism, and other common failures I have seen in Western theologians when applied to Islam.
I may not be too far from this. I started to be an atheist but (as best as I can describe) found myself believing in god anyway. I interpreted it as catholicism having etched a god shaped hole into my brain. It seemed like more trouble than it was worth to fight it. In this context 'I believe in god' isn't a conclusion but an observation.
Knowing that your brain hasn't updated correctly does not make it trivial to force it to.
By my current theology, my Gods are rather a lot like the dragon in my garage which is invisible, can't be touched, and leaves no thermal signature. For example, I may be wired to believe in divinity, but I am apparently not wired to believe in a creator (Thanks PBS!) so in my thinking on cosmology, physics, or evolution, my theology just doesn't come up. This is at least partly by design.
I can relate to this. I had a crisis of faith about a month ago (thanks LessWrong!), and while I've "officially" stopped believing "those things," they still sometimes show up in my thinking. I am, as it were, in the midst of a complex re-architecting process. Particularly hard to eliminate are those beliefs which actually serve a functional purpose in my life. For instance, the beliefs that give me emotional support, and the beliefs that I use to decide my actions, are very hard to deal with. In these cases I need to figure out how to build a new structure which serves the same function, or figure out how to live without that function. This has required a significant amount of creativity and deep thinking.
Georges Ray has defended a position he calls "Meta-Atheism." He believes that just about nobody who says they believe in God actually does, for reasons somewhat like the ones Eliezer mentions. I highly recommend checking it out. Here's a link: http://stairs.umd.edu/236/meta-atheism.html
I can't help but think of Simulacra Levels. She Wants To Be A Theist (aspiring to Level 3), but this is different from Actually Being A Theist (Level 3), let alone Actually Thinking That God Exists (Level 1). She's on Level 4, where she talks the way nobody on Level 3 would talk - Level 3's assert they are Level 1's; Level 4's assert they are Level 3's.
This I can understand.
I am a protestant Christian and your friend's experience with "belief" are similar to mine. Or seem to be, from what I gather in your post.
One thing I've come to realize that helps to explain the disparity I feel when I talk with most other Christians is the fact that somewhere along the way my world-view took a major shift away from blind faith and landed somewhere in the vicinity of Orwellian double-think.
The double-think comes into play when you're faced with non-axiomatic concepts such as morality. I believe that there i... (read more)
What is the evidence that "she does not receive any benefit of believing in God"? I would expect that with her attitude she would be accepted and included into religious communities.
That's not a benefit of believing in God. You don't have to believe in God to be accepted into religious communities. You just have to say "I believe in God".
It may help to genuinely believe you believe in God. But in the Modern Orthodox Jewish community that I remember from Chicago, someone who actually seriously believed in God and acted accordingly, who was over the age of 20, would probably get looked at a little funny - they wouldn't get the warm friendship that accrues to those who just say the passwords.
A "benefit" of actually believing in God would be, say, that you weren't too sad at funerals because you genuinely believed the deceased was in Heaven. Pretty sure no one at the family funerals I attended went that far.
The intention was to provide a clarifying example of an existential statement that should be non-controversial ("There exist some people who are uncomfortable living a lie"), not to assert probabilistic evidence for a universal statement ("Everyone I have read about is uncomfortable living a lie, therefore this is true of all humans"). I noted the selection bias only to clarify that I am not making the stronger universal statement, but it doesn't interfere with the existential statement.
An interesting point. Keeping in mind that cryonics "believers" trust cryonics with varying degrees of probability and that many or even most of them try to appear more rational to their skeptical friends by saying "The probability is only 20% but that still makes it a good bet based on expected utility", then I'd say that I've seen both behaviors. That is, I've seen some cryonicists expressing grief, some cryonicists (including myself) saying "See you later", and my untrustworthy eyeballs indicate that this correlates to how much trust they have in cryonics.
Eyeballs also indicate that someone who's more deeply involved in the cryonics community per se is less likely to mourn, regardless of what they say about their verbal probabilities. And furthermore, when someone is suspended who themselves believed strongly in cryonics, "weak" cryonics advocates are less likely to mourn that person! This may have something to do with the degree to which mourning is empathy...? Or do they, perhaps, believe just strongly enough to worry that the one will come back and be annoyed at the "condolences"?
Are weakly religious people less likely to mourn the death of strongly religious people? I'm guessing "Yes" - and it'd be easier to gather data here.
Sounds like priming: since the deceased is associated with not mourning cryonically suspended, the attitude towards this issue changes in the context. I expect that the verbal probabilities, if not premeditated, will also change, if the question is framed like "what is the probability that [this person] will be restored?", depending on the belief of [this person] in the success.
Yes; you would be unable to talk to them for.. however long it'd take before you could join them.
Of course the rational solution then would be suicide or, failing that, good, ethical actions that certainly would get you into heaven but just happen to be incredibly dangerous. I'm sure we could find some.
Although this does not speak directly to the heart of your argument, the Elamite etymologies you provide are almost certainly incorrect, and seems that the reference to the legend is even weaker.
Here is a good discussion of the point, with references.
Mordechai and Esther are of course theophoric, but theophoric names, including those named after the gods of the dominant culture but given by non-believers in the respective gods, are common in many... (read more)
Of course, the validity of the point about "Haman" is not relevant to your core argument.
When I said "good discussion" in my comment, I was trying to say that using my best judgment, honed in a PhD in a closely related field, and examining the argument and the affiliations of the authors, it seems like an unbiased discussion. Good scholarship is of course neither "pro" nor "anti" Bible.
The apparent phonetic resemblances between Haman and an Elamite god are linguistically far-fetched. There is absolutely no connection between a h and a kh (written also h-with-hook-underneath). It is always easy to find coincidences if you are willing to stretch resemblances far enough. Even Jensen admits that Vashti (perhaps pronounced Washti) is unattested and that he is is emending from Mashti.
Also, note that Haman and Vashti are in no way paired in the Biblical story, and Marduk and Ishtar were not a divine couple.
After the first modern Bible scholars tried (with religious motives) to understand the Bible in its historical context, and found that much of it was non-historical and that there were connections to other Near Eastern cultures, some went overbo... (read more)
I'm a little surprised that the lack of evidence for peripheral stories that aren't in the Torah is considered significant, compared to the lack of evidence that Hebrews were ever slaves in Egypt.
Rationality is about winning. Sometimes it's a great psychological relief to be able to use belief as a shield or help. I have never had any qualms about using it to counter other irrational beliefs, fears, anguishes. Like for instance, when I was a child, the fear of darkness or monsters below my bed or whatnot.
Telling myself "ok, this isn't real and you know it, so no fear should be necessary" doesn't have quite the same effect as "God will help me chase them away / protect me".
Those are two different ideas, even though we use "... (read more)
This is of a piece with the Doublethink article. I think you just don't get it, as too many atheists don't.
This seems a case of someone concluding consciously and subconsciously that believing in God had greater instrumental rationality - more winning - than not believing in God. The supposed mystery of her stress on her belief in God, rather than his existence, is easily explained by this. Her belief pays the freight, not God.
To be clear, I'm an atheist. But it's clear that belief in God does have instrumental benefits for lots of people. If your goal is ... (read more)
Many people cannot distinguish between levels of indirection. To them, "I believe X" and "X" are the same thing, and therefore, reasons why it is beneficial to believe X are also reasons why X is true. I think this, rather than any sort of deliberate self deception, is what you have observed.
See Positive Bias: Look Into the Dark and Knowing About Biases Can Hurt People.
This sounds very like she enjoys the feeling of doublethink. Applying aesthetics to one's own feelings. I suspect this is behind New Age as a grab-bag people tend to give credence to all of, or crank magnetism - people assess beliefs by how it feels to profess them.
Whether this is "real" belief depends then on what you call "belief". It's a real something, I think, and "belief" is not an invalid word for them to use for it, but we might benefit from separate ones for "I like this belief" (which I mean in a sense stro... (read more)
I like this article (but then I liked Dennet's ideas of belief in belief right from the start) and I've been thinking about this off and on all day.
But I think perhaps Eliezer over-analyses: On the surface this person's beliefs and thoughts seem fuzzy, so Eliezer admiraly digs deeper - but perhaps it's just fuzz all the way down.
Perhaps she believes P and ~P, perhaps she believes P>Q and she believes P but she beleives ~Q.
Perhaps you just have to shrug, and move on.
My experience is that most religious people give very, very, very little thoug... (read more)
Is it possible that this person was deliberately avoiding such statements of declaration?
I imagine myself, hypothetically, discussing physics with an opponent who only believes in Aristotelian mechanics. I'm not going to come right out and declare "Objects at rest stay at rest". Instead, I'm going to say "I believe that objects at rest stay at rest", going under a mock hypothetical that perhaps my belief is an opinion and not a fact, and then slowly try to win my opponent over. Making guarded declarations instead of absolute declarat... (read more)
Faith is a major component of Christianity. For example, Jesus says to Thomas“Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” So Thomas, who knows Jesus is resurrected because he has seen and felt him, is less blessed than those who simply believe (but don't know). Likewise, though God could easily get a bunch of converts by showing Himself, doing that would lose the faith aspect.
Don't go being smart and saying that you by definition have faith in things you know -- Christians don't mean this defini... (read more)
I would disagree. She does receive a benefit—by the Bible, faith in God would save her from Hell. My guess is that she deceives herself into believing in God because she wants to go to heaven in case God actually does exist.
I personally do this, and it seems consistent with what you described in this post. As you pointed out, she doesn't seem to ACTUALLY believe in God, only acts as if she does. I do the same. I pray sometimes, I tell myself that I believe in Go... (read more)
Okay not knowing your friend I think she could do following:
premise one. God probably exists
premise two. I want to believe in him
conclusion I believe in god. That’s it.
of course it’s weird but if you really want to believe it works. For me and you this isn’t enough. But for her it seems to be
My curiosity is drawn to the nature of the benefits the woman expects. Does she get a high from the false belief or does her mental model inform her that the false belief will favorably affect external reality -- e.g., she will have friends more likely to behave charitably towards her than atheist friends will be?
A very intelligent conservative Christian once gave me the latter as a primary reason she become a Christian. OTOH, Garcia thought that the former was usually the motive in the population he interacted (which was very different from the population at large though).