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Your Rationality is My Business

He might have meant "lock them in the pillory but don't admit to knowing why."

How to Convince Me That 2 + 2 = 3

Having seen that verse in several translations, it reads to me as a primitive admonition against belief in belief.  (Which matches up with his criticism of praying or fasting as a publicity stunt instead of because you actually hope to accomplish something.)

Consider:  If it were a point of Christian faith that a particular mountain should be torn down and cast into the sea, and people really believed in their religion instead of just believing that they believed... well...  Even with just picks and shovels there aren't many mountains that would survive the wrath of 2.3 billion people for very long.  And without careful study of the circumstances, it would seem like something of a miracle that some massive army of workers just spontaneously organized and did such a mighty task without there being a king or some other authority figure forcing them to do it.

Basically, lots of the things that ancient religions attributed to "God" or "The power of Faith" are very real phenomena that they simply couldn't explain, and the fact that we can now explain them (at least a little better) doesn't necessarily render the old practical advice on how to make use of them worthless.  There are often better sources for it that are more clearly stated for the modern mind, but there can also be some value to knowing that the thing you are studying has been known about since the dawn of recorded history and that your ancestors were not, in fact, total fools.

The Proper Use of Humility

A big problem with trying to pull wisdom out of the bible and similar is that there is a whole pile of cultural context that is either gone, or requires large amounts of study to discover.

Like someone a thousand years from now who has somehow dug up an old blog post that strongly asserts that "The Cake is a Lie!" you're missing a massive portion of the story.  And you can justify almost anything you want to just by filling in the missing bits differently.

And this is before you even get into the biblical religions having all gone through historical phases where they deliberately filled in the cultural bits incorrectly for political reasons.

The best thing I've found to do with it is set God = Truth, and remember that someone's story being included isn't an assertion that they had everything right.  There's plenty of satire in there too.  Most of it exceedingly subtle.  Something about criticizing the powerful being a potential death sentence so they had to make it look like praise. But if you actually lay out the statements and evaluate them as a whole instead of individually it paints a different picture.  

Like when you suddenly realise that they're praising Solomon as being a great king by describing the grand temple and palace he built, but if you pay attention to the descriptions of each it seems that he not only built the palace out of grander, more expensive materials, he built it as a mirror of the temple with his throne room in place of the holy of holies...  And suddenly the description of the man's character takes on an entirely different tone if you know anything about what the relationship between God and the King was supposed to be.

And yet various branches of bible-based religions spent hundreds of years using Solomon as part of their description of a "Godly King".  Because it fit their political narrative and kept the peasants in line.

In short, Biblical stories are like any other repository of folk wisdom.  The only way to find the truth in there is if truth is what you're actually looking for and you don't stop until it makes coherent sense.  And this whole site is dedicated to showing all the ways in which human beings generally aren't actually looking for the truth...  So...  Good luck?

The Proper Use of Humility

It occurs to me that Trinitarianism and similar are likely best explained as the theological equivalent of wave-particle duality.

Does light really sometimes behave like a particle and sometimes behave like a wave?  Probably not.  More likely there is some underlying, unified behaviour that we simply haven't figured out yet due to limited data and limited processing power.

Similarly, when trying to comprehend and describe an infinite...  something-that-has-intent, with a finite human mind and viewpoint as your only tool, there are likely going to be some similar bits of weirdness.  God in three persons?  More likely you have a "blind men and the elephant" situation.  Only this elephant is too big to ever see more than a tiny piece of it at a time, and too mobile to know for certain that you've found the same part of it to look at twice in a row.

So you could easily have a case where the Unitarians are technically more correct about the overall nature, but the Trinitarians have a better working description.


This says nothing about whether Theism as a whole is the most correct explanation for the observed phenomenon.  Just note that the "practical explanation that mistakenly comes to be thought of as the way things really are" is hardly limited to Theology, and I highly doubt theologians are  measurably more likely to commit this error than anyone else.  The very reason that you have to use placeholder tokens for thinking about concepts that can't fit in your brain all at once leaves you susceptible to occasionally forgetting that they're just placeholders.

Say Not "Complexity"

In my work I additionally find it useful to break "magic" itself down into categories:

magic:  It's part of the tool's intended problem domain, but you can't use it this way without a thorough understanding of precisely how it functions.

black magic:  This is not part of the tool's intended problem domain, but your thorough understanding of both the problem and the tool's internals lets you use it for this.  (Playing music on a floppy drive for example)

voodoo:  It's not what the tool was made for, you don't know why or how it works, you have no idea what range of inputs will produce acceptable outputs.  You just know that having the clock open in the top right corner of your screen keeps your word processor from crashing...

The fact that there is no "real" magic reminds people that there is a rational explanation, and the categories convey information about how deep the pond is likely to be to anyone considering diving for answers.

Semantic Stopsigns

In a couple of Paul Graham's essays about neural network computing he suggests that Semantic Stopsigns are a necessary part of the design for general-purpose, parallel-computing intelligences to keep them from getting stuck in infinite loops attempting to solve infeasibly large problems.

The key is learning to recognize it as an "overflow error" flag and not a "this problem is solved" flag.  Internally they feel almost the same.

Science as Attire

Such an ability isn't even that ridiculous with proper grounding.  Brain cells seem to use an RNA-like molecule to transfer programming from one neuron to another.  Turning that into a way to make genetic changes at the speed of protein brains instead of at the speed of genetic evolution would be a big step, and very unlikely to come about without the assistance of some protein brains guiding the process, but once it was established it would be a large enough advantage that it would likely stick around.

So odds seem high that all the "mutants" are the descendants of some genetic engineering project somewhere.

Religion's Claim to be Non-Disprovable

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 does that automatically translate into your particular religion correctly ascertaining the will of any such master so strongly that you don't need to justify it somehow?

Insofar as some of the ancient religions were based on a search for the truth they can make reasonable starting points.  But many people take that ancient finger pointing toward the truth and instead of looking toward the shining city in the distance, shouldering their packs, and setting off to continue the journey, they sit down and suck on what's really just a road sign and tell themselves they're "glorying in its Majesty"...

Religion's Claim to be Non-Disprovable

The events described in the account would be trivially easy to replicate if somebody managed to slip some calcium phosphide in among the altar stones.  Don't get so wrapped up in demonstrating your rational disbelief in the supernatural that you discount simple conjuring tricks.  ;-)

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