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TCB20

Two sheep plus three sheep equals five sheep. Two apples plus three apples equals five apples. Two Discrete ObjecTs plus three Discrete ObjecTs equals five Discrete ObjecTs.

Arithmetic is a formal system, consisting of a syntax and semantics. The formal syntax specifies which statements are grammatical: "2 + 3 = 5" is fine, while "2 3 5 + =" is meaningless. The formal semantics provides a mapping from grammatical statements to truth values: "2 + 3 = 5" is true, while "2 + 3 = 6" is false. This mapping relies on axioms; that is, when we say "statement X in formal system Y is true", we mean X is consistent with the axioms of Y.

Again, this is strictly formal, and has no inherent relationship to the world of physical objects. However, we can model the world of physical objects with arithmetic by creating a correspondence between the formal object "1" and any real-world object. Then, we can evaluate the predictive power of our model.

That is, we can take two sheep and three sheep. We can model these as "2" and "3" respectively; when we apply the formal rules of our model, we conclude that there are "5". Then we count up the sheep in the real world and find that there are five of them. Thus, we find that our arithmetic model has excellent predictive power. More colloquially, we find that our model is "true". But in order for our model to be "true" in the "predictive power" sense, the formal system (contained in the map) must be grounded in the territory. Without this grounding, sentences in the formal system could be "true" according to the formal semantics of that system, but they won't be "true" in the sense that they say something accurate about the territory.

Of course, the division of the world into discrete objects like sheep is part of the map rather than the territory...

TCB00

In this article, Eliezer implies that it's the lack of objective morality which makes life seem meaningless under a materialist reductionist model of the universe. Is this the usual source of existential angst? For me, existential angst always came from "life not having a purpose"; I was always bothered by the thought that no higher power was guiding our lives. I ended up solving this problem by realizing that emergent structures such as society can be understood as a "higher power guiding our lives"; while it's not as agenty as God, it suits my purposes well enough, and I've been free of existential angst ever since.

(I do agree with the main thesis of Eliezer's post; I think I was able to accept my philosophical solution to existential angst because of an increasingly positive outlook on life. I'm just commenting because I'm now very curious about what "existential angst" means to the rest of LessWrong. What does existential angst mean to you?)

TCB10

I agree with what seems to be the standard viewpoint here: the laws of morality are not written on the fabric of the universe, but human behavior does follow certain trends, and by analyzing these trends we can extract some descriptive rules that could be called morals.

I would find such an analysis interesting, because it'd provide insight into how people work. Personally, though, I'm only interested in what is, and I don't care at all about what "ought to be". In that sense, I suppose I'm a moral nihilist. The LessWrong obsession with developing prescriptive moral rules annoys me, because I'm interested in truth-seeking above all other things, and I've found that focusing on what "ought to be" distracts me from what is.

TCB20

Aha! I think I was misreading your post, then; I assumed you were presenting truth-seeking as a reason why you wanted your friends to be atheists, as well as a reason why converting them would be moral. Sorry for assuming you didn't know your own motivations!

TCB110

It really depends on your own personal moral system (assuming ethical relativism). In order to answer your question, I would need to know what you consider moral. I'll attempt to infer your morals from your post, and then I'll try to answer your question accordingly.

It sounds from your post like you're torn between two alternatives, both of which you consider moral, but which are mutually exclusive. On one hand, it seems that you're morally devoted to the causes of atheism and truth-seeking; thus, you desire to convert others to this cause. But on the other hand, you're morally devoted to your friends' happiness, and you realize that if they do become atheists, then they will lose their social grounding (not to mention the emotional benefits they receive from being religious).

It sounds like you're very devoted to truth-seeking, and that you believe atheism to be the truth. (Side-note: as a Bayesian, I distrust anyone who claims to know "the truth". The point of Bayesianism is that we don't know the truth; all we have are probabilities, and thus we can approach the truth but never attain it.) Anyway, given your devotion to truth-seeking, I would expect you to want to avoid Dark Arts-ish methods. If atheism is true, then we (and your Catholic friends) should want to believe that atheism is true, but we should want to believe it because of empirical evidence and rational argument, not based on the words of some authority figure (especially since authority figures have proven unreliable in the realm of religion).

If you deconvert your friends using Dark Arts-ish methods, but you don't teach them the virtues of truth-seeking, then atheism will become just another religion to them, handed down by new authority figures (you and "Science", for instance). They'll accept atheism in the same way they accepted religion: with blind faith. If your goal is truth-seeking, then you should want to teach your friends skepticism, not atheism. And if you're so interested in converting your friends to atheism that you would sacrifice the virtues of truth-seeking, perhaps you should re-examine your motivations.

You note that the God issue is a source of tension between you and your friends; thus, I suspect that you want your friends to be athiests because it would relieve social tensions, not because you are devoted to spreading the virtues of truth-seeking. Because you are considering using the Dark Arts, it seems to me that your appeal to truth-seeking is a rationalization. So what you're really asking is, "Is it moral to make my friends' lives very difficult in order to relieve a social tension that I find unpleasant?" Most moral systems would say "no".

Perhaps I'm being a bit unfair to you. Perhaps your true goal is to encourage truth seeking, but it's easier to convert atheists to truth-seekers than it is Catholics. Or perhaps you believe that atheism will make the world a better place by eliminating holy wars and other problems caused by religion. If that's the case, then I apologize for the harshness of this analysis. Also, fwiw, my personal moral system says that converting your friends to atheism would be wrong, so I'm likely to be biased. Take this (and everything else in life, of course) with a grain of salt, and good luck to you with whatever you decide to do. =)

TCB20

That sounds awesome and not manipulative at all. =)

TCB240

I'm all for community-building activities, and I'd love to learn to dance, so I think this is an awesome idea. That said, something about the way this post and its comments are worded rubs me the wrong way entirely, and makes me want to avoid rationalist dance meetups and the LessWrong community in general. Since it seems that your goal is to recruit more rationalists, and I've been a long-time lurker on the outskirts of the rationalist community, I figured that it might be helpful if I explained my negative reaction. I've had similar negative reactions to many LessWrong posts, and it's part of why, although I consider myself a staunch Bayesian, I am reluctant to identify as a rationalist.

One of my problems with this post is the academic and impersonal wording used to describe the studies cited. (This complaint does not apply to the first two quoted passages.) Because of the detached and dispassionate wording, I imagine participants entering the rationalist dance meetup thinking "Tonight I'm going to manipulate System 1 into having good feelings about the rationalist community!" To me, this mindset seems incredibly fake: the eternal detachment and third-person analysis of our own experiences prevents us from fully engaging with the events at hand. If I were to attend such an event for community-building purposes, I would instead go into it thinking "Tonight I'm going to meet a bunch of cool people and have a really great time learning to dance!"

On a related note, I dislike the manipulative nature of this post. The opening paragraphs in particular suggest that a meetup organizer should be thinking "I am going to plan activities that will trick participants into bonding socially, in order to lure more people into joining the rationalist community." I think that a better perspective would be "I am going to plan activities which are fun, and which make people feel at home in the rationalist community; they will enjoy this meetup so much that they'll want to become rationalists!" Of course, these two statements are saying roughly the same thing, but the former treats people as pawns to be manipulated, while the latter treats people as... people. Really, if you're going to lead a meetup, you need to have empathy and treat the other participants as human beings with feelings. Otherwise, people are going to think you're a jerk and stop showing up. I don't mean to say that the meetup leaders are actually failing in this regard; rather, I'm claiming that the wording of this post fosters attitudes that are counterproductive to community-building.

Again, I really like this idea. The reason I am replying to this post is because the recent call for contrarians has given me the courage to speak up; it is not because I consider this post a particularly egregious offender of either of my complaints.

TCB00

I find this post incredibly inspiring, but I feel like it does not directly address one of the main reasons that people do not find scientific explanations emotionally satisfying. When we personify the cosmos, then the universe seems a lot less hostile, and we feel much more connected to it. A primitive man looks up at the sun and thinks, "There is the sun-god, the sky-father, watching over my people." And he is happy because the universe, while capricious, is not apathetic to his life. But a modern man looks up at the sun and thinks "There is a giant ball of gas that lacks any consciousness." And he is sad because man is alone in a vast and impersonal universe indifferent to his plight.

I also don't think that scientific stories are incompatible with human stories. I think the problem with the religions we have is that their views of the cosmos are outdated, not that religious or spiritual beliefs must inherently contradict scientific ones. As an exercise (because I want to be a writer), I frequently try to describe scientific theories to myself in personified, mythological terms, or I try to write myths which reflect our modern understandings of the universe. Consider the following creation myth, which is compatible with the big bang theory of the origin of the cosmos: In the beginning, there was the cosmic mother. She died giving birth to the universe, which burst forth from her womb in a fiery fury of pain. Etc.

TCB40

Allow me to provide some insight, as an erstwhile "anti-reductionist" in the sense that Eliezer uses it here. (In many senses I am still an anti-reductionist.) I think that what is at work here is the conflict between intuition and analysis. However, before I remark on the relevance of these concepts to the experience of a rainbow, I would like to clarify what I mean by the terms "intuition" and "analysis".

The way I understand the mind, at the very deepest level of our consciousnesses we have our core processes; these are the things we have carried with us from the dawn of our evolution. And somewhere around there is our emotions and our gut reactions. Because these are such fundamental processes, and because they are ingrained in us so deeply, we feel them especially strongly. Emotions add richness and depth to experience.

As I see it, emotion is deeper than intuition, but not much deeper. Because our intuitive thought processes are so close to our emotional thought processes, intuitive thoughts are more likely to inspire emotional experiences. And as I see it, analysis is at the very surface level of our minds: it is our verbal reasoning, to which we have full conscious access. Because analysis is further from emotion than intuition is, it is less likely than intuition to inspire an emotional response. I suspect that it's for this reason that verbal, rational, conscious analyses are often seen as dry and lifeless and lacking any emotional resonance.

Here is what I believe Keats experienced. Before he knew the scientific explanation of the rainbow, he experienced rainbows intuitively and they caused in him a powerful emotional response. When he saw a rainbow, it did not trigger conscious verbal thought, and instead it triggered intuition which triggered emotion. But after he knew the scientific explanation, that verbal experience of the rainbow overrode the intuitive experience. Now, when Keats saw a rainbow, it triggered the conscious analysis level of his mind, and did not trigger intuition or emotion, and thereby were rainbows made less beautiful.

It could also be possible that before Keats knew the scientific explanation of rainbows, he had a very different verbal understanding of them. After all, Keats was a poet, so one would expect him to have been a very verbal thinker. But there are some verbal descriptions which are closer to intuition than others. The more concrete a description, the closer to intuition it is (at least, this is my hypothesis). Intuition is very symbolic, as is well-known from dreams. Abstract concepts are represented by simpler, concrete symbols. Thus, I believe that the more concrete a description is, the more intuitive it is, and the more likely it is to incite an emotional response. Whoever explained the rainbow to Keats probably did so in abstract scientific terms, and thus this description probably did not trigger such an emotional response, and Keats therefore did not think it was beautiful.

I suspect that the reason we scientifically-minded types find scientific explanations beautiful is because we understand them intuitively. Much of learning involves gaining an intuition for a subject. Those who have studied science have gained the intuition required to understand it. What this means, in terms of my model of cognition, is that the words for scientific explanations now activate symbolic, intuitive concepts, which in turn activate emotion. According to my model, then, those who have learned a subject deeply would be more likely to feel emotions when hearing about that subject, than those who have not been exposed to it. From my own experiences and from talking to others it seems like this is largely true.

A final alternative presents itself. Perhaps Keats does feel emotion when presented with the scientific explanation of the rainbow. Perhaps this emotion is negative. When he hears the scientific words he recalls tedious days in science classes that failed to capture his imagination and he then associates rainbows with this tedium. Rainbows then become less beautiful because they have been explained in a way that is negative to Keats.

Anyway what I think is that we need better education, which teaches kids the beauty of scientific ideas. Actually, I suspect science fiction novels would be better for this than textbooks and classes; good writers have a way of infusing ideas with beauty, and reading science fiction as a kid seems to enhance enthusiasm for science.

TCB30

This post reminds me of evidential markers in linguistics (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evidentiality). Evidential markers are morphemes (e.g. prefixes or suffixes) which, when attached to the verb, describe how the speaker came to belief the fact that he is asserting. These can include things like direct knowledge ("I saw it with my own eyes"), hearsay ("Somebody told me so but I didn't see for myself"), and inference ("I concluded it from my other beliefs"). While evidential markers are less specific than what's described in this post ("Somebody told me" rather than "John told me last Thursday at lunch"), I suspect that speakers of languages with evidential markers would be a lot more inclined to remember the more specific details.*

Does anyone here speak a language with evidential markers? If so, what do you think of the claim (asserted in at least four separate comments here) that these things would be far too difficult to remember and keep track of?

*I suspect this because I've read some articles about languages which use absolute direction (north, south, east, west) instead of subjective direction (left, right, in front of, behind); speakers of these languages develop very good internal compasses and always know which direction they're facing. (Here I'm assuming this is due to nurture rather than nature.) If language can cause people to acquire such a skill, it doesn't seem unreasonable that language could also cause people to acquire a talent for remembering sources of information.